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.