Megan Casey reviews Black By Gaslight by Nene Adams

There’s a lot to say about this novel—both good and bad. It starts out like a house on fire but finishes in smoldering ruins. Here are some of the good things. First, there is the setting: 1888 London, smoggy, dark, and smelly. Lady Evangeline (Lina, or “the dark-haired lady”) St. Claire is an independently wealthy private investigator. She is tall and strong and versed in the martial arts, like Xena, who, along with Sherlock Holmes, is her inspiration. The Gaby/Watson character is called Rhiannon Moore, who Lina rescues from a life on the streets after falling in love with her at first sight.

In an odd twist, there is another Sherlock Holmes character that plays a big role in the novel. He is called Sherrinford Pike, who lives with his lover, Dr. Ormond Sacker. Lina’s love/hate relationship with Pike is charming and often hilarious. When she accuses him of shooting at her through a dressmaker’s window, he denies it, “even if I did once introduce a cobra into your sitting room. . . . Besides, I thought that you’d sworn not to mention that unfortunate incident with the air rifle again, St. Claire. . . . [and] the arsenic-filled bonbons were an honest mistake committed only once.”

And if that sounds a bit over the top, well, so is everything else in Black by Gaslight. Lina’s language is the language of Jane Austen squared—or maybe the language of the penny dreadfuls that Rhiannon delights in reading. “Rage beat at her and filled her veins with liquid fire. A red mist enshrouded her vision.” And to be truthful, the language is often so well—or oddly—crafted that it escapes being simply romance-novel drivel and often rises to the level of actual creativity. So does the relationship between Lina and Rhiannon. Both are smitten with the other at once, but neither thinks it appropriate to mention it to the other. And when their passion gets the best of them—as it does in strange situations, such as in a carriage when they are chasing a murderer—they will then play it down, or try to pretend it didn’t happen.

But it is almost as if the author gets tired of the novel halfway through. Repetition creeps in, as do inanities. The language becomes tedious, the amount of attention to describing Victorian-era women’s attire takes up too much space, the love story becomes sappy, important incidents are forced—rather than intelligently woven—into the plot, gore is splattered more-than-generously on virtually everything. And then there is the ending, where at least one of the women takes a series of actions so stupid that it defies even my imagination—which is one that has seen more than its share of ridiculous endings. It becomes just another Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the ripper novels, with Jack as someone that constantly hears the voices of prostitutes talking to him. Motivation? Backstory?

The main thing wrong with this novel is the same thing that is wrong with most independently published books in general and lesbian mysteries in particular: the lack of an even halfway-decent editor. Yes, this is an Uber novel and one that was almost certainly first posted to a fan site. And yes, fan sites are notorious for their unabashed enthusiasm for everything Xena (or everything Hermione or everything Kate Janeway) and lack of critical sensibility.

But lack of critical thinking bespeaks a lack of education, and a lack of education is the downfall of civilizations. If you don’t believe me, look around you. What’s worse, competent editors are very few and far between—it takes a great deal of study and reading to even attempt it, while university courses in the fine arts are becoming more and more unfunded. And let’s go even further; good editors command a respectable fee—as indeed they should—and few budding authors or even independent presses can afford one.

So too bad, what started out as a potential Top 20 List novel turned into something that I finished with a sense of relief. What could—with a very competent editor—have been rated near a 5 ends up at somewhere near a 3.

For 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

 

Megan Casey reviews Dirty Work by Vivien Kelly

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Jo Summers is kind of a social worker. She is the office manager of a London hostel for the disadvantaged. I’m not sure we have the equivalent in the U.S—halfway house, maybe—but the residents of her house are ex-drug addicts, ex-prostitutes, or abused men and women who have been approved to live in inexpensive housing until they can get back on their feet. When one of Jo’s favorite residents is found dead of an overdose, Jo suspects foul play of some kind. The police, of course—including an old flame—don’t agree, so Jo is forced to investigate the death on her own. Other deaths follow in short order.

In the course of her investigation, she is thrown into contact with a number of savory and unsavory characters—some of which she spends the night with. As in all good mysteries, one interview leads to another to another and to another until at last she seems to understand what the hell is going on. It is kind of a unique novel in that there is not a similar novel that comes immediately to mind. Maybe Looking for Ammu, although the resemblance is slight.

The best thing about this book is its consistent quality in every aspect of the writing. Jo’s first-person point of view narrative is a thing of beauty, such as when she describes the relationship between one of her friends and his lover: “to say that the two of us didn’t get on is like saying that Tom and Jerry had their little differences of opinion.” The descriptions of the hostel and of its work for the community are interesting and progressive. The characters are well drawn and the mystery is logical and puzzling. Few books are so well done A-Z.

Having heaped up those particular praises, I need to add that, although good, it is not a great book. The characters are not quite interesting enough, the crime doesn’t have that extra twist that brings it up to Poe level. Kudos to Onlywomen Press, who are “Radical lesbian feminist publishers,” for printing a book whose life may not yet be over.

The real crime here is that such a good book has not yet had a single review either on Amazon or on Goodreads (except mine). I’m going to go ahead and give this one a 4 plus. It may not be on the level of a Nikki Baker or a Kate Allen, but it is close. It’s not going to appear on many Top-10 lists, but it is a book I would recommend to you or anyone. And I can’t say that for many books I read. Get in touch, Vivien. Let’s get Dirty Work formatted as an e-book. And maybe we can share a bottle of Glenmorangie.

For 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Megan Casey reviews Command of Silence, by Paulette Callen

command-of-silence

After reading only a few chapters of this book, I wondered why it was not a best seller. It has all the trappings of one. Think of the play Elephant Man: it is a less-than-wonderfully-written play, but the subject matter guarantees it a wide audience just as a train wreck guarantees a gaggle of rubberneckers. Command of Silence has that unique subject matter without being poorly executed. What a concept—a detective with multiple personalities. And it would have been so easy for the author to completely screw it up. She didn’t; instead, we see a wide range of emotions flitting through at least 10 completely different identities: a wisecracker, a caretaker, a monster, an artist, a child, an evil twin; hey are all part of Shiloh, and she needs all of them in order to succeed in her investigations. Or even just to get through a normal day.

I mean, when have you ever looked forward to the sleuth interrogating the suspects one by boring one? Well, I certainly did in Command of Silence. Shiloh is just so interesting that you look forward to seeing how the interviewees react to her.

And Shiloh is incredibly clever. The way she works out the solution to the mystery (which involves two abducted children) is superb, creative, and very exciting. All of the characters are well drawn and believable.

But toward the end of the book I found out the answer to the question I posed in the first paragraph. To be a best seller, or even to interest a major publisher, the final interrogations of the suspects would have to be more believable. As it is, the criminals simply break down in the face of Shiloh’s questioning, which to tell the truth, is less special than her earlier interviews. Nor is it in any way legal. In life, neither of the guilty parties would have been convicted. I feel that this is another example of an author getting a fine idea, then wondering how to work herself out of the corner she finds herself in at closing time.

So far, this book is not part of a series, and I hope this remains true. I feel that Callen has created something special that would tend to get old with more than one novel; that the personalities would just do the same type of bickering we were treated to in this one. I would far rather the author spend some time working on the dénouements to this one. To make it the terrific book that it could, with only a little rethinking, be.

Note: This book is actually only on the borderline of lesbian literature. Shiloh’s therapist is a lesbian, and I suspect at least one of Shiloh’s multiple personalities is, too. However, it was a finalist for the Lambda Award, and that’s good enough for me.

For more than 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Red Rover by Liz Bugg

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I confess that I like this book a little more than I originally thought I would. Maybe it’s because I liked the design and feel of the Insomniac paperback version, which is very easy on the eyes. Or maybe it was the very professional pace that Bugg was able to adhere to throughout. I also liked the theme of the mystery, which involved the protagonist’s intense search for a missing young lesbian in Toronto.

Calli Barnow gives off reminders of many other lesbian private investigators without actually borrowing anything and without being given any remarkable qualities, such as Abigail Padgett’s Blue McCarron, who has no qualms about giving the reader her views on psychology or statistics, or Caroline Shaw’s Lenny Aaron, who specializes in cats and who knows every breed. Callie is just a normal 40-something woman trying to make a decent living for her and her partner Jess, and hoping that she doesn’t get into something dangerous. The one quirk that Bugg does bestow on Calli, though, is a good one. She has anxiety attacks that tend to almost paralyze her unless she pops a Xantax. I like that kind of human weakness in a character. And I like the backstory that helps to explain it.

In her search for the missing woman, Calli comes into contact with babydyke Lisa Campbell and almost falls for her. It is only her love for Jess—who is out of town during the entire adventure—that saves her from her roving eye. The trouble is, I really liked Lisa and, at first, wanted them to get together. Jess was kind of an amorphous telephone presence that did not let me know why she and Calli were together. Lisa, on the other hand—again, at first—was the most exciting and lively character in the cast.

Bugg’s prose is average, no pops and crackles, but she tells a pretty good, exciting story. Although I frown on the type of ending she chooses—I have disparaged it in several other reviews—Bugg does it with a little more believability than, say, Anne Laughlin. In all, it reads like a first novel, but one that lets the reader know that there are better times ahead. Put Calli on a list with other Canadian sleuths such as Helen Keremos, Harriet Fordham Croft, Jil Kidd, and Aliki Pateas. It’s not a bad bunch at all. I suspect—and hope—that you will be reaching for the second Calli book before any of those mentioned above.

For more than 200 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews The Other Side of Silence by Joan Drury

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Tyler Jones is not the most social person in the world, so when she wins the Pulitzer Prize for journalism for a feature story about spousal abuse committed by members of the police force, she goes into semi-retirement, writing her newspaper columns from home. Because of her urgent concern about violence against women, she also spends time at a crisis center. But although her research and counseling brings her into contact with many forms of violence, her own life is rather uninteresting and predictable. That is until she finds a dead body in the park while out walking her dog.

The characterization of Tyler is very subtle, and we often have to rely on small clues to get a true picture of her. We know that she broke up with her last lover ten years before and that she is more comfortable working at home than at an office. This may be explained by the fact that she describes herself as “hefty,” “robust,” and “fat.” Not in the way a fashion model might think she has to lose a pound or two, but because Tyler is truly overweight. Yet she mentions this only in passing—never dwells on her weight issues. We also know that she is a recovering alcoholic who is often badly in need of a drink. The fact that Drury gives us no backstory on any of this is an omission that might be rectified in the two subsequent books about Tyler Jones.

Here’s another thing we know about Tyler but have no real backstory on: she has little use for men (except for her contact at the newspaper) and blames them for much of the violence that goes on in the world—especially against women. As she says, “I am, with reason, suspicious about men—especially when it comes to violence.” In fact, Tyler makes her living writing about the subject. She produces a weekly column for her newspaper and is writing a book-length oral history. And hey, Tyler is a writer who actually writes. We are not just told about a column, we get to read it, too. Likewise chapters of her book, which are convincing and heartfelt.

So does this mean that men won’t like this book? Umm. Many won’t, but that’s their loss. The history of feminism and the ongoing violence against women is a subject that everyone should take a serious interest in. The fact is, The Other Side of Silence is one of the most well-crafted mysteries I have ever read. It just continues to develop until the very unusual (but maybe not totally unexpected) ending. The fact that Tyler (and Drury, who was the editor and publisher of Spinster’s Ink for 10 years) have an important agenda is all the better.

The plot has to do with Tyler finding the body of a man in the park next to her house. The man happens to be a spouse abuser who once attacked Tyler physically when he found out that she was using her apartment as a safe house for his wife. Who would kill such a man? Everyone? Maybe it was Tyler herself—the police certainly think so. And of course to prove her innocence, Tyler has to uncover the perpetrator on her own. Unlike many books with this motif, however, Tyler’s experience and skill as a reporter gives her the tools she needs to actually investigate in a believable manner.

Oh, there’s a glitch or two, but they are so subtle it would be hard to prove they even exist. I’m willing to let them go and to give this novel a solid 4 stars. It certainly gave me reason to buy and read the other two novels in this series. It is one that should be on most people’s to-read list.

For more than 200 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Chicken Run by Alma Fritchley

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Letty Campbell, ex insurance agent, becomes the owner of a small chicken farm in the small town of Calderton, a half hour outside Manchester, U.K. . When the niece of a neighbor asks her to introduce her shy but recently-out-of-the-closet aunt to the lesbian scene in the nearby large city, Letty finds herself smitten with the woman. But also, through a series of coincidences, she also finds herself hosting a big-bucks automobile auction at her farm.

The most curious thing about this mystery is that is doesn’t seem to be a mystery at all. With only three chapters to go, the only unexplained happening is Letty’s suspicion that someone broke into her house for no reason and stole nothing.

As lesbian mystery novels generally go, the sex in this one is rather tame, with the the horrid word “after,” beginning more than one paragraph. But this is certainly no surprise in a mystery that is generally classified as a cozy. The writing is simply adequate, the mystery kind of nonexistent, and the humor—much praised in the blurb—muted at best.

I’m terrifically glad I was able to get hold of this book so I could judge it for myself. It is one of the few cozy lesbian mysteries and a welcome change from some of the blood-and-guts dramas and high-octane sex I have found in several other lesbian mystery novels. Still, I doubt I’ll go on to the next one in the series. Quite frankly, I didn’t find Letty very interesting. And when your main character is bland, your book tends to be rated less stars they the author might wish. There are four of these “Chicken” novels, all written between 1998 and 2000. I suspect that Fritchley gets into a better stride in the next novel, makes Letty use more of her wits, but that is for another reviewer to decide.

For more than 200 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Femme Noir by Clara Nipper

femme noir

I read Nipper’s latest book, Murder on the Rocks, before I read this one. That was a mistake, because the two books are so different in quality. In fact, I began Femme Noir thinking that it would be really bad. It is not, although the two books have several elements in common. First, both take place in good old Tulsa, Oklahoma, although Nora Delaney, the main character in Femme Noir is a visitor while Jill Rogers (from Murder on the Rocks) has lived there all her life. Second, both are butchy. Third, both like to play with fire (oh oh; have I just uncovered some symbolism? I wouldn’t be surprised)—Nora has a habit of lighting wooden matches with her thumbnail while Jill snaps a ubiquitous Zippo lighter open and closed throughout her adventure. And both think about sex approximately 40 hours every single day. Both are minorities: Nora is African-American; Jill is Native-American.

Well, the good news is that Femme Noir,is better than Murder on the Rocks, although to actually call it noir you have to alter the word’s definition. It is more in the tradition of books like Jaye Maiman’s I Left My Heart, where the protagonist is called to another city when an ex-lover is murdered. In this case, it is a woman that Nora lived with for three years in Los Angeles before the woman moved to Tulsa. In the course of Nora’s investigation—the police are rarely, if ever, mentioned—she finds out a lot about her ex-lover that she didn’t know.

She also learns about the 1921 Tulsa race riot—which was one of the worst in United States history—in which the most affluent black community in America was burned to the ground, dozens were killed, and hundreds arrested. As Nora’s research continues, she finds reason to believe that her ex-lover’s murder is directly related to that fateful event almost a century earlier. It is an important inclusion, but it is not the only thing that brings this book up above the ordinary. Many of the scenes that include people she meets in Tulsa are fresh and humorous; a scene in an alternative bookstore featuring a lesbian on roller skates is one of the funniest in the literature. And the second half of the book is just plain well written. There is no trace of the unfocused author of Murder on the rocks.

It is not all good, though. Otherwise it would have won prizes, right? It was enough for Nora to look into the Tulsa race riot without having her new white friend Jack go into a tearful, drunken tizzy when he even thinks about it. And Nipper has a bad habit of having her protagonist drop everything to go into an almost pornographic fantasy about Max—her current love interest—although I have to admit that the last time she does this is a hoot. The rest are superfluous and boring. Think about it: reading about sex is not as exciting as actually having it, but reading about someone thinking about sex is another layer removed from the real thing.

There is something about this author that intrigues me. On a personal level, I like the fact that she works for the safety of animals, that she is a roller derby queen, that she feels it is important to let her readers know about the Tulsa race riot—which had been hidden from public knowledge for 90 years—and that writing is the most important thing in her life. I think it is interesting that Nipper—who some might describe as a voluptuous blonde if her pictures do her justice—makes her protagonists minorities. It is even more interesting that the love interests of the both protagonists—Max and Sophie—are not only almost interchangeable, but they are described as voluptuous blondes.

Give this one anywhere between a 3 and a 4 that you wish. I’ll say 3.7. Both of these Noir Series books are currently available as e-books at a very reasonable price.

For 200 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Mrs. Porter’s Letter by Vicki P. McConnell

 

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Mrs. Porter’s Letter , published in 1982, is one of the first four lesbian mysteries ever printed—and only the second to develop into a series. It was followed over the next several decades by hundreds of other novels featuring lesbian sleuths. Yet the novel’s influence seems small in comparison to some of f the other early authors of lesbian mysteries, such as Eve Zaremba (who created the private investigator Helen Keremos) and Katherine V. Forrest (whose police detective, Kate Delafield has become an icon). Few critics seem to have paid much attention to McConnell. Either no one was influenced by the book, or no one bothered to read it. What a mistake, because it is decidedly and mysteriously different from almost everything that came later.

The book, featuring fledgling writer Nyla Wade, is on the surface a modern Gothic search for the owner of a desk that Nyla comes to possess, although it has a very noir subplot involving the murder of a prostitute. Most important, though, it is Nyla’s search for her own intellectual and sexual identity. This is very rare in a genre dominated by out-and-out dykes, closeted (like Kate Delafield) or not (like Helen Keremos). Nyla, throughout most of Mrs. Porter’s Letter, is neither.

In fact, Nyla is one of the few protagonists in the lesbian mystery genre who has been married to a man. But Nyla is divorced now and living on her own, getting back into her first love—writing—both for a living and as a creative outlet. To this end, she buys an antique desk, which turns out to contain the spirit and essence—not to mention some love letters—of its previous owner.

Nyla is an intriguing and very likable character with more moxie that I had expected. McConnell, her creator, is adept at showing us her many sides, including very real fears about a single woman living alone in a dangerous city. Luckily, Nyla has a best friend, Audrey Louise that she can discuss things with. McConnell draws Audrey Louise, with her flummox of a husband and three complaining children, with a sympathetic pen. Although Nyla has strong feminist leanings, it doesn’t seem as if she has even given the slightest thought to the idea of identifying as a lesbian—until she actually meets a few.

The novel takes Nyla on a thousand-mile journey to search for the writer of the letters she finds—and to unravel the 30-year history of a hidden love affair. In the process she is finally able to realize why her marriage was not a success and why she has such powerful feelings for a woman she meets in a bar.

Slipshod editing in places is to be expected in early Naiad Press books, but the ones found here rarely detract from the enjoyment of reading. But the lack of seamlessness to the story is another matter. A good—or even a decent and sympathetic—editor, could have guided McConnell through the complex plot and suggested ways in which it would actually achieve more cohesiveness and believability. As it is, the reader gets the idea that McConnell began the novel with no real idea how to end it.

With this and other problems, it can’t be ranked among the best in the genre, but its early publication date makes it a must for students of the lesbian mystery genre. An additional quirk is the fact tat this book and its two sequels are illustrated—probably the only lesbian novels I have seen that are. Sadly, all of McConnell’s books seem to be out of print and unavailable in e-book form. This needs to be corrected.

For 200 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Ten Little Lesbians by Kate McLachlan

ten little lesbians

There is a lot that can be said about this book, not just about whether it is good or bad, but also about the style of its composition, its history, and its characters. This is true of all good books, of course, but not all books are good.

It is no secret that Ten Little Lesbians is based on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, which was originally published under a name that had more negative racial overtones. I don’t want to go into that here, but Google the book if you don’t already know the story. In Christie’s novel, a number of people are invited to an island resort in order to kill them. Each has a guilty secret

In the more modern, Ten Little Lesbians, the guests are all women who are planning a “Women’s Weekend” at a bed and breakfast many miles from the nearest town. And yes, they all have guilty secrets. The two main characters are Beatrice Stone and her niece Tish. Bea has arranged the trip for two reasons—to get Tish away from her ex before she is arrested (again), and to accompany her friend Carmen, who is trying to get over a bad breakup. The other guests—as well as the inn’s owner and her single employee—of course have their own stories. One  character is blind, one is an ex-con, one is a Mormon, and so forth.

But except for a tidbit here and there, that’s about as close to Ten Little Indians as McLachlan gets. This is not bad because Agatha Christie is not a very good writer. Ooh, have I touched a taboo subject? Too bad, because although Christie could write an extraordinary plot line, very few of her characters are realistic or interesting. I exclude Miss Marple from this because I kind of like her, but Hercule Poirot was a windy buffoon; even Christie herself disliked him. And the vast majority of her incidental characters are utterly and immediately forgettable. Her prose is generally plodding and dull.

Ten Little Lesbians is a much more enjoyable book than its near namesake. Not only is the writing more lively, but the characters are all more interesting and individual. One of the reasons for this is McLachlan’s use of point of view. The book is made up of seven longish chapters, but each chapter is further divided into sections. And each section has its own point of view character. Chapter 1, for instance has at least one section from each character’s perspective so that we get not only different voices, but deeper backstories as well.

When one character disappears and another is found dead, the fun begins. In fact, the book reminded me as much of the 1986 mystery/horror movie April Fool’s Day as it did the Agatha Christie novel. And the story really is fun, despite the suspense. Tish is a sexy, engaging character and her aunt is a businesslike no-nonsense authority figure who harbors a tragic secret. “Aunt Bea” is pragmatic and philosophic and generally is the one who moves the book along. But it is the divergent lives and voices of the other characters that keep us anxious to follow her.

My one quibble is that I found myself wishing I knew earlier who was gong to end up as the main character. Tish dominates the first two chapters, then her aunt takes over almost completely for the next two. This is not necessarily a fault; after all, a number of series, such as Penny Mickelbury’s Mimi and Gianna Mysteries, are told from two points of view. I just came away with a suspicion that all is not as balanced as it might be. Give this one a 5 on the enjoyability scale and certainly no lower than a 4 in your final rating.

For other reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Winged Dancer by Camarin Grae

the winged dancer camarin grae

When Camarin Grae wrote the majority of her novels, there was no Amazon, no Goodreads, no peer reviews. The only way for a book to be reviewed was for the publisher to send galleys to periodicals months in advance of publication and hope for the best. Reviews for any work of lesbian literature were not only few and far between, but limited to the few almost-underground lesbian mags available only by mail or through the very few lesbian bookstores that existed at that time.

Scholars of lesbian literature have been slow to recognize—or even unearth—some of the classic works of lesbian mystery. Witness the very few reviews and ratings for brilliant novels like Claire Macquet’s Looking for Ammu, Nanisi Barrett D’Arnuk’s Outside In, or Helen Shacklady’s The Patterned Flute. Like Camarin Grae’s Winged Dancer.

The story begins with a fable. Hundreds of years ago, in a small South American country, several different tribes vied for existence. The cruelest and most powerful of the tribes subsumed or eliminated their rivals until only one of the smaller tribes was left—the Boweso, who escaped to an area impervious to attack. They worked out an egalitarian system of society where all members—men and women—enjoyed equal status. Each year they celebrated life by bringing out a life-sized statue of a winged dancer, fashioned mostly of gold. It is a fable of oppression and power, rebellion and redemption.

The novel itself has a similar motif. Kat Rogan is simply in the wrong place when a dying stranger begs her to deliver a coded letter to his sister in a fictional South American country. On her first day there, she is attacked by a man who wants to not only steal the missive, but rape her in the bargain and she kills him in self defense. But it is hard for a stranger to be believed in a country where abuse of women is almost the norm, and Kat is sentenced to life in a particularly unsavory prison.

Without going into any more detail about the plot, it is important to mention that while in prison, Kat learns the rules of the jungle. She finds herself first a bully (“I came to see others as either useful objects or interfering obstacles.”), then a near-slave (“My job is to perform as you wish, as a finely tuned instrument responsive to each whim you have.”) In other words, she runs the gamut of that power and oppression I talked about earlier. And of associated dichotomies like ethical and unethical, winners and losers.

Through all of her prison experience, Kat works on decoding the letter she received from the dead man—the solution of which would get her out of prison. It is an intriguing code referring to the original Boweso legend, which brings both stories together in a very satisfying way. It’s hard to find anything bad to say about this book. The puzzle is original, the action palpable, the romances titillating, and the relationships between characters realistic and totally human.

If Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt has been resurrected to be the darling of lesbians the world over; if Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland has been injected into college Women’s Studies classes, then Winged Dancer deserves its place in the pantheon of minor American classics.

For more than 200 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/ or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries