Sapphic sleuths: every mystery is better with lesbians by Jess Lea

Why are so many lesbian readers drawn to tales of crime, mystery and suspense? Maybe it’s a cultural legacy; perhaps those tacky mid-century paperbacks about ‘strange passions’ and ‘women in the shadows’ have left us with a taste for noir. Or maybe it cheers us up to see tough, resourceful heroines uncovering secrets and protecting the helpless. Or maybe I just like a woman in a trench coat.

When I came to write my first novel, A Curious Woman, I knew it would be a murder mystery complete with romance. And to celebrate its release, I’m paying tribute to some of my favourite lesbian mysteries, old and new.

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Dorothy Porter, The Monkey’s Mask (1994)

A jaded, bitter private detective, tempted by a femme fatale who might turn out to be a killer – it sounds like the plot of a Bogart movie. But this is a lesbian crime thriller … in verse. When Jill Fitzpatrick is hired to find a missing girl from a rich family, it seems like easy money. Then a body is unearthed, and Jill must trawl through sex clubs, poetry readings, and crime scenes, looking for the truth. And there’s the seductive Diana: Jill’s new lover, informant, or suspect? It turns out poetry can be a perfect way to tell a murder mystery. The scenes are filmic and sensuous, saying things a prose writer might not dare: about sex, gore, violence, loneliness, and obsession.

Lee Winter, The Red Files (2015)

Lauren King is an aspiring journalist eager to make her name. Catherine Ayers is a once-powerful political correspondent, now banished to the purgatory of entertainment news. The two women clash and provoke each other, and try to deny their mutual attraction. But when a business function is disrupted by a busload of showgirls and some stolen champagne, Lauren and Catherine sense a story. Their quest leads them into the murky world of data theft and identity crime, and they’ll be lucky to get out alive. It’s a rollicking, romantic adventure, told with great humour, but there’s a serious message: as traditional news media vanishes and invisible tech-barons quietly take control of our lives, we need old-fashioned journalists more than ever.

Jess Lea - suggested pic for blog

Monica Nolan, Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary (2007)

‘Welcome to the secret world of Lesbian career girls, Lois!’ It’s 1950s America, and Lois shocks her small town by abandoning a life of cheerleading and homemaking to become a secretary in Bay City. She loves her work at the advertising firm and her home at a ladies’ boarding house, where the other career girls are strangely without boyfriends. But who’s been breaking into her office and blackmailing people? And what happened to the last girl who lived in her room, and disappeared? There’s dark stuff in the background – lesbians trapped in loveless marriages, racism, McCarthy’s witch-hunts – but the mystery itself is fluffy, silly, and very camp. Extra points for the earnest fifties slang – ‘dope fiends’ and ‘reefer madness’, anyone?

Mabel Maney, Kiss the Girls and Make Them Spy (2001)

If you feel like searching second-hand stores for this one, you won’t regret it. It’s swinging sixties London, and the British secret service have heard of a dastardly plot to kidnap the Queen. Unfortunately, their top agent 007 is unavailable, so they turn to his handsome, hard-drinking lesbian sister, Jane Bond. Cue a hilarious and sexy mystery, featuring crime-fighting makeup saleswomen, closeted MI6 agents, and a nasty right-wing group called the Sons of Britain.

I also like this novel for its scenes set in the real-life lesbian Gateways club, an important place in our history.  In all these books, and others, there’s a quieter mystery lurking in the background: of how lesbians, despite the odds, have managed to live, love and triumph.


Jess Lea is the author of A Curious Woman (2019) and The Taste of Her (2018), both released by Ylva Publishing. Jess has worked in universities and the community sector; she enjoys crime fiction and the writings of funny women, and she dreams of one day discovering a cure for writer’s block. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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2 comments

  1. I 100% agree; every mystery IS better with lesbians. I’ve loved mystery fiction all my life. I enjoy reading and writing such fiction that represents women just like me. Great post and you chose some great books to highlight!

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  2. Thanks for including my book, Jess. And being an Aussie like me you’d know better than ever all about vanishing real journalists. It makes my heart attack and gets my nostalgic for Lauren and King all over again. 🙂

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