Gay and lesbian characters are hardly newcomers to the mystery genre. Sherlock Holmes' lifelong commitment to bachelorhood and propensity for male roommates was always more than a little suspicious, and a fair number of lesbians have embraced Nancy Drew, her femme friend Bess and her butch buddy George as their own. (There's even a clever lesbian parody of the Nancy Drew series, the Nancy Clue books by Mabel Maney.)
But starting in the 1990s, lesbian mysteries began springing up like mushrooms in the rainy season. Authors like Val McDermid, Kate Allen, Ellen Hart and Claire McNab began producing books featuring tough, strong, intelligent dykes who made no apologies for their sexuality. And a relative newcomer to the field, local author Lauren Maddison, has just published her third mystery featuring Connor Hawthorne, a former district attorney turned novelist.
Maddison, whose bio claims she has lived "just about everywhere," has set her books just about everywhere as well. The first Connor Hawthorne mystery, Deceptions, was set in New Mexico. The second, Witchfire (which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards earlier this year), was set in Glastonbury, England. Death by Prophecy, just published by Alyson Books, takes place deep behind the Orange Curtain, where Connor and her partner, Native American Laura Nez, have come for a vacation in Laguna Beach. They quickly find themselves up to their well-groomed hairlines in murder, mayhem, priests, right-wing terrorists, missions, nuclear power plants and ancient Catholic heresies.
Like the previous books in the series, Death by Prophecy is a curious and not entirely successful mix of hard-nosed crime novel and New Age spiritualism. Maddison herself, who lives in Irvine and is an associate director of the Institute for Spiritual Leadership at the Unity Church in Tustin, clearly views spiritualism as a driving force in her life. "I believe that the more we allow our soul or the spiritual part of ourselves to enter into our daily life, the easier every activity becomes," she says on the Alyson website. "Writing, too."
Connor has inherited powers from her Celtic grandmother; Laura, true to her Native American heritage, routinely wanders in the Dreamtime and gossips with herdead grandmother. The pair regularly uses visions, dreams, magical herblore and chats with spirits to help them solve the mystery facing them: namely, who hammered a stake into the chest of a well-liked priest in Santa Ana, and what does that have to do with a secretive right-wing Catholic society called Malleus Caelistis? And what plans does that group's leader, a psychopath named Richard Bell, have for the nearby San Peligro nuclear power plant?
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Death by Prophecy is most effective when it is firmly grounded in reality: Bell's coldly insane musings on his role in bringing about the Apocalypse and Maddison's deft handling of the lengthy discussions of Catholic doctrine and history. It's when the plot meanders off into what Connor, the skeptical ex-DA, refers to as "woo-woo stuff" that it bogs down. The novel lost me entirely when the angel materialized in the garden of the old California mission to lecture them on the proper way to harvest herbs. But readers who enjoy a dollop of spirituality along with their brutal murders may find Death by Prophecy strikes a chord with them. And those readers certainly needn't be confined to the lesbian crowd. A number of other genre writers who deal primarily with gay and lesbian characters have successfully made the leap over to a more mainstream audience. Patricia Cornwell introduced a lesbian character to her best-selling series of Kay Scarpetta mysteries. Laurie King's popular series of mysteries set in San Francisco features a lesbian police detective named Kate Martinelli. In other genres, Melissa Scott and Nicola Griffith have written highly praised science-fiction novels populated largely with lesbians and gays. But Maddison's books are clearly aimed at a lesbian readership. Alyson Books is a gay and lesbian publishing house in LA, and the review copies and advertising for Death by Prophecy are targeted at the gay and lesbian press. It's a bit of a self-limiting proposition: genre fiction, such as mysteries, science fiction/fantasy and romances, is already marginalized to the fringes of intellectual life, scorned by readers of "serious" fiction as the second-class citizens of the publishing world. Lesbian genre fiction, then, flourishes at the margins of the already-marginalized and faces an even greater challenge in trying to break into the mainstream. Some gay and lesbian authors have resisted this ghettoization, and a number have succeeded. Scott is not viewed in fandom as a "lesbian writer," but rather a sci-fi writer whose books happen to have lesbians in them. Griffith once said in a radio interview about her acclaimed first novel, Ammonite, "I'm the author; I'm a lesbian. My protagonist is a lesbian, and she has a lesbian love affair. [But] it's no more a book about being lesbian than [seminal cyberpunk novel] Neuromancer is a book about coming to terms with one's heterosexuality." So in a way, it's a shame that Maddison's publishers have decided to focus their efforts solely on the gay and lesbian community; frankly, the odd synthesis of fantasy with mystery would be a tougher hurdle to overcome in appealing to a broader audience than would the genuine affection between Connor and Laura. DEATH BY PROPHECY BY LAUREN MADDISON; ALYSON BOOKS. SOFTCOVER, 408 PAGES, $11.96.