Did you know that there are over 1000 lesbian mystery titles? Or that there are over 250 authors of lesbian mysteries, more than 95 percent of whom are still alive and writing? It’s true, but many readers—probably most readers—have never read a single book in the lesbian mystery genre. That’s a shame, because some of them are wonderfully written, exciting, educational, sexy, emotionally satisfying, and yes, important.
Let’s go ahead and define a lesbian mystery. First, of course, the main character must be a lesbian or bisexual woman in a same-sex relationship. Second, the main character must investigate a crime or solve a mystery or puzzle that is central to the story line. That’s just about it, although the best of these offer a glimpse into some interesting aspect of the lesbian lifestyle. Protagonists can be private investigators, law enforcement officers, or amateur detectives of any profession as long as they are not werewolves, vampires, or other superhumans.
For those of you who don’t want to wade through the thousand plus titles, the following list is an introductory guide to some of the best books in the genre. The list is in alphabetical order—there is no first, second, or third. They range from the highly literary to the pure and simple whodunit. And remember that the books on this list are my personal favorites—someone else’s list might be quite different. (Titles are linked to full reviews, covers are linked to Amazon pages.)
The Beverly Malibu, by Katherine V. Forrest. There are many good novels in Forrest’s Kate Delafield series, but this one, with its motif of Hollywood persecution during the McCarthy era, is probably the most important. It is also the book in which Kate meets the person she will live with for most of the rest of the series.
The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse, by Mabel Maney. Probably not the most literary read on the list, but certainly one of the most enjoyable, with its parody of the Cherry Ames and Nancy Drew girls’ series books of the mid-20th century. Delightful and fun and more than a little silly.
Death Takes a Hike, by Peta Fox. This is the third and (so far) last book in the Jen Madden series. I list it instead of the first two because it takes some time to get to know Jen and figure out what the author is up to. Take note that the series is so filled with rough sex that it borders on BDSM, but Fox is probably the smartest writer in the bunch. Jen is an absolutely wonderful character with a mindset all her own.
Good Bad Woman, by Elizabeth Woodcraft. A novel about a British barrister who gets involved with a torch singer. This mystery lands firmly in the literary world and includes a very interesting crash course on British law and the way it is handled. Woodcraft’s only other novel, Babyface, is every bit as noir and every bit as good.
Grave Silence, by Rose Beecham. Set near the desert in Colorado, this one is quite a thrilling adventure with characters that sometimes make Erskine Caldwell’s seem tame. The main character, Jude Devine, is an undercover FBI agent sent to the desert posing as a Sheriff’s detective. She essentially answers to no one.
Houston Town, by Deborah Powell. Powell’s superb use of language—and exciting storylines—make this book and its predecessor, Bayou City Secrets, winners on almost every level. A fairly unusual twist in the lesbian mystery genre, this hard-hitting series is set in 1930s.
I Left My Heart, by Jaye Maiman. An honest look at the emotions behind the death of a loved one—and the resolve to find out the reason she died. Its relatively long length (over 300 pages) gives Maiman the opportunity to fully explore the themes of politics, religion, love, guilt, grief, and passion.
Idaho Code, by Joan Opyr. Bouncy story with a young protagonist, quirky characters, a cool girlfriend, and an odd mystery. Delightful, and its 321-page length gives the author room to move about. Beware of the sequel, however, which is a disappointing rehash.
Keeping Secrets, by Penny Mickelbury. This is the first of the excellent Mimi and Gianna series. Although it is a short novel, it introduces the interracial couple of Gianna and Mimi and provides the background for the rest of the series. It is one of the first series with dual protagonists. All four books are excellent.
The Lavender House Murder, by Nikki Baker. Superior writing, craft, a winning but argumentative best friend, and deep introspection make this a standout. Virginia Kelly is the first African-American lesbian sleuth in fiction and Baker the first African-American Author. All four books in the series are highly recommended.
Looking for Ammu, by Claire Macquet. Not your typical whodunit, as the protagonist starts out simply looking for a friend. She doesn’t even know what a lesbian is until half the book is over, but what writing! A classic noir thriller that should be at the top of many lists, not just lists about lesbian mysteries. Deep and dark, seamy and satisfying.
The News in Small Towns, by Iza Moreau. A very different setting for this series—a redneck town in North Florida where Sue-Ann McKeown and her girlfriend Gina may be the only lesbians. A story with multiple puzzles, this is one of the most literary books on the list, and one of the most enjoyable series.
The Other Side of Silence, by Joan Drury. The main draws here include the reclusive protagonist, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter, and her main interest in life—to expose violence against women wherever and whenever it occurs. It is a powerful feminist mystery with a surprising and unusual ending.
Outside In, by Nansi Barrett D’Arnuk. Compelling, riveting, undercover mystery that takes place mostly within a women’s prison. Honest, real, exciting, and professional. Another mystery where rough sex also has an important part to play.
The Patterned Flute, by Helen Shacklady. Interesting, free-spirited characters, portrayed well in realistic settings and a wild ride that left me on the edge of my seat. I loved the budding romance between the protagonist and her scheming and determined traveling companion.
She Scoops to Conquer, by Robin Brandeis. This is a stand-alone novel about a reporter in Louisville, Kentucky. Its intriguing and educational plot is interspersed with humor as Lane Montgomery and her erstwhile lover and newspaper rival—both serious femmes—duke it out for the story.
Tell Me What You Like, by Kate Allen. Delves into the S/M leather scene in a way that makes you want to know more. Good characters, good puzzle, good everything.
1222, by Anne Holt. Exciting, well-drawn, and professionally written and translated from the Norwegian. In this novel, ex-police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is a wheelchair user and is trapped with other passengers—one of them a murderer—in a train station during a horrible snow storm. The previous books in this series may be even better; but this is the only one I have read.
Unexpected Sparks, by Gina L. Dartt. A darling novel set in Nova Scotia featuring two of the best protagonists in lesbian literature: Kate Shannon, a bookstore owner, and Nikki Harris, a police dispatcher. Their courtship makes this novel—and this 2-novel series—special.
Woman with Red Hair, by Sigrid Brunel. This stand-alone novel is set in France and describes—expertly using the unusual third-person-present point of view—the protagonist’s search for her birth mother. Although maybe not as brilliant or groundbreaking as some of the other books on this list, it is certainly not one you can just read and forget.
There are other writers that came close to making this list: Lindy Cameron, Ellen Hart, Vivien Kelly, Val McDermid, Iona McGregor, and Barbara Wilson, but the titles I read, although very enjoyable, fell just short. See my full-length reviews of over 100 lesbian mystery novels—including the ones listed above—at The Art of the Lesbian Mystery Novel.
Megan Casey is a small-town librarian whose special interest is reading, studying, and popularizing the lesbian mystery novel. She moderates the Goodreads Lesbian Mystery study group.
This post originally ran March 2015.