Mystery Novels and Labels

One of my latest reviews left me so disturbed that I can’t stop thinking about it. The review itself praised the book, but ended with a warning that some of the characters in the story are gay. The reviewer didn’t warn about characters who are black, brown, old, or handicapped, just about the gay ones.

Beyond the offensiveness of the warning, which has so many sad implications that I could write a book about them, is the assumption that gay characters in a book is a daring departure from the norm. Needless to say, that isn’t true. Except from the perspective of a reviewer of “cozy” mysteries, which some self-styled authorities have confused with G-rated movies.

Mystery novels set in small towns, with protagonists who aren’t professional law enforcement officers, are called “cozies.” The label began with Agatha Christie’s stories of Miss Marple, the prim old lady who solved crimes by outwitting all the bumbling professionals. I love Miss Marple, but I don’t write mysteries about a prim old lady. My stories are set in today’s world, with people of all races and religions and classes. As in the real world, some are straight, some are gay. In either case, they go to work, they cook meals, they love their families. That fact shouldn’t need explaining or justifying.

Harlan Coben, the new president of Mystery Writers of America, has promised the organization intends to end the “ghettoization of mystery novels.” It’s certainly time. The original reason for labeling mystery novels by type was that book sellers like to be able to point readers to books that fit their preferences. But the labels have lead to increasingly narrow definitions, and to a confusing maze of sub-labels and cross-labels and “not quite” labels. If we don’t put a stop to the nonsense, readers will end up reading the same story over and over, writers will be forced to write to formulaic guidelines, and more reviewers will have to warn readers that a mystery novel set in a small town has some gay characters in it.

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10 thoughts on “Mystery Novels and Labels

  1. That sort of homophobia makes me wonder what century we are living in. I have seen articles on the increasing specialization of reading tastes, e-journals and such assuring no surprises in the mix. What a waste! We should be surprised constantly — that’s the whole point of reading, learning, life! Those closed minds can’t get any new ideas.
    OTOH, I recommended the books to a gay friend, specifically because of the manner in which the characters’ sexuality is treated, as a natural part of life, like having brown hair or a talent for cooking.

  2. Bravo, Ms. Clement!
    I wholeheartedly agree with you. Why would anyone take offense in your portrayal of two individuals in a stable, loving relationship? Just because they are gay? Ridiculous! I love the fact that Dixie is friends with people of all colors, physical abilities, sexual orientations, and creeds! Dixie lives and loves in the real world. That reviewer needs to read more of your books–he/she might learn something!

  3. Hilarious. I love that the reviewer feels the need to protect the sensibilities of his or her delicate readers and warn them that they might encounter gay characters in your book – how terrifying!! But murder? Deception? Violence? Blood? Well that’s all harmless fluff!

  4. You would think with all the advances in trying to overcome a prejudice of any kind that a reviewer would read with an open mind and let all that go by the wayside. I can’t believe that someone wrote a “warning” because the character was gay – that is like one of the stupidest things to put in a review. Me, I could care less about the individual characters – I want to read a story that grabs me and keeps me until the very end; how all the characters interact and make that story believable is what I look for – the story itself, which is not the characters, although their lives are important to the story.

    Anyway – I’m sorry to hear that people can’t get over their own prejudices not to write reviews on the story itself and have to “look down” because a character is gay – absolutely ridiculous. C’est la vie, unfortantely.

    See you in the postings – E 🙂

  5. That is just disturbing on so many levels. The fact a reviewer would be…jeez, so many adjectives fit here… is digusting. I LOVE those characters, btw! Living in San Francisco and having grown up in Southern california in a very liberal household, I am continually stunned when confronted with homophobia.

  6. Blaize,

    I didn’t know where to put this so I entered it here on the writings blog as this is in regards to your writing. Will we ever hear more about Phillip, from your first book? I hope he is doing OK. It is amazing what Dixie has all been through. I am a supporter of Dixie. I hope she and Guidry eventually get together. I love to read so I appreciate the good books you are writing.

    I understand you being upset by this one review. Remember it is just one among many. Focus on the positive reviews and/or those that offer some constructive advice. It takes great strength to be a public figure. With your background in therapy, you can do it. Some people are not equipped to cope with all that goes with fame. Those are ones who get into trouble. Stay strong by focusing on what you love to do, love to be surrounded with, and people who support you.

    All the best,
    Jolene

  7. It wasn’t the review that disturbed me, Jolene, it was the idea that anybody in today’s world feels that readers need to be warned that some of the book’s characters are gay. I would have been equally offended if the warning had been that some were black, or old, or Jewish or Muslim. It’s the idea that readers have to be protected from reading about people unlike themselves that bothers me.

  8. Finished reading Even Cat Sitters Get The Blues, at midnight , last night .Now I’ve read them all.Couldn’t you try to write a little faster ? I HATE having to wait a year to hear from Dixie again !
    CHEERS ! Elva

  9. Blaize,

    I love your books. I’m a committed cat lover, having four cats & feeding a fifth stray outside (maybe I should be “committed”). At least I’m not as bad as my friend Mary, who has ten cats. The theme that I particularly love in your books is the relationship between Dixie & her brother. Unfortunately, my only brother is deceased. Even though I loved him very much, for some reason the feeling wasn’t returned. It would have been wonderful if we could have had a similar relationship. Gay? Who cares. They love each other and that’s all that counts. I am so looking forward to your next book. HURRY.

  10. The reason a warning is appropriate when dealing with books read primarily for entertainment is because the premise that homosexuality can be positive is very much up for debate. First, if one were to write a plausible portrayal of homosexuality, it would be too depressing to include in a “cozy.” Topics such as depression, rampant promiscuity, deliberately engaging in dangerous sexual practices, the high rate of sexual abuse as children in people who later identify as “gay,” as well as the ethical debates about whether or not homosexuals should be able to adopt children, the redefinition of marriage, whether or not children are by default considered to be the children of the people whose sexual union made them, etc. etc. are all by definition matters of life and death, deeply serious, deeply controversial, and absolutely the last thing many people want to read about when they just want to relax with a whodunnit. Warning people that gay characters are positively portrayed on a mystery is absolutely appropriate, as would be a warning that, for instance, the book ridiculed Christians, advocated in favor of adultery, or any other politically and ethical controversial stance. Classic mysteries, by definition are conservative, and appeal to people who believe in right and wrong, and in the traditional roles and definitions of the family. Simply, if you’re including a positive portrayal of homosexuality (which many people believe is not an accurate portrayal), you’ve violated the traditions and expectations of the genre. You’re writing something else entirely, i.e. a “gay-friendly mystery,” which would appeal to a minority of mystery readers.

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