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Bits & Pieces: Spring Lesbian Mystery Roundup

Bits & Pieces: Spring Lesbian Mystery Roundup

Author: Victoria Brownworth

March 23, 2013

Spring hints and hovers as is always the case in March, but there’s still a chill in the air, which makes it so much easier to curl up with a good mystery than start that pre-Passover, pre-Easter, pre-equinox cleaning. It has been a dreadful winter, but I spent a lot of time checking out mysteries I should have already read as well as some brand new ones.

(…and lots of other books. Like Hilary Mantel’s multi-award nominee, Bringing Up the Bodies. That woman can do historical fiction like almost no one else. If you haven’t read her, do. It’s a trip back in time without the disease and pestilence and other nasty things. But mesmerizing. And while you’re at it, read her award-winner before that one, Wolf Hall.

(Joyce Carol Oates has a new fabulous–or is it fabulist?–novel as well: The Accursed, which does what all Oates’ novels do–melds Gothic sensibilities with feminist nuance with a little more than a soupcon of horror. In his review in the New York Times, Stephen King called it “the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel: E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime set in Dracula’s castle.”Oh yes.

(If you are one of the only people on the planet not to have read three other major female award nominees for this year–Gillian Flynn, Zadie Smith and Barbara Kingsolver, get thee to a bookstore or barring that, Amazon. These writers demand to be read.

(And in a brief moment of shameless self-promotion: If you haven’t read Lammy finalist Night Shadows edited by multiple Lammy winners Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann, do read it. It’s a superb collection of horror stories. It also happens to include my novella, Ordinary Mayhem, which will creep you out for days. Night Shadows includes–other than me, Redmann and Herren–some of our strongest writers. So do check it out.)

Now, for some lesbian mystery! Let me share what I should have shared sooner (fortunately, unlike fruit, books never go bad) as well as some newer offerings.

I loved the title of Robin Silverman’s debut novel, Lemon Reef  (Bold Strokes Books)It conjured both mystery and romance, as well as that kind of intangible, dangerous, inexplicable beauty that lies beneath, in the ocean. And if I were to say one line about the book, I would say that: the title evokes what’s inside. Mystery, romance, danger: that’s what lies at the heart of Lemon Reef.

Lemon Reef

Lemon Reef

The story begins with backstory: as teenagers, Jenna Ross and Adeline “Del” Soto hung out and dove at Lemon Reef. They were soul mates as only high school kids can be. And when that bond is forged, only death can truly sunder it.

Jenna is dressing quietly for court so as not to wake her partner, Madison, as Del is drowning while scuba diving in Lemon Reef in Miami. It’s easy to imagine the split screen as Silverman begins the novel–Jenna getting ready, Del losing consciousness. Easy. Awful.

When Jenna’s childhood friend, Gail, calls to tell Jenna Del has died, she disbelieves the autopsy results–that Del died of natural causes. Del was an ace swimmer. What could have gone wrong? Was it Del’s husband, the self-absorbed and re-invented Talon, who had been with her? And what of their daughter, Khila? Del was allegedly leaving Talon. What did thatmean? And why had everyone kept all this a secret from Jenna?

Jenna goes back to Miami to find the truth. There’s a Big Chill moment, where the lives of the childhood group are laid bare and the stories that are told about what happened to whom are less than savory. But Jenna owes Del. Owes her for things she did to Del, owes her for not being there when Del came to her, needing her. Owes her for the love she felt but never gave freely enough. Owes it to Del that Khila not become another victim of Talon, as Jenna is sure Del was.

But as Jenna goes back in time, she uncovers things she would rather have kept buried. Things about Del and of course, more unsettling, things about herself. There are some shocking moments in this novel that are raw and unvarnished, yet highly realistic. There are things women do to each other that are rarely discussed, and they happen in this book.

Silverman delves into a panoply of tough issues in Lemon Reef: There is the over-arching issue of what happens when teenagers come out without support as Jenna and Del did, but there are also issues of class and race, domestic violence and rape. Lemon Reef may take place in Miami, but this is not a fluffy beach read. It is, however, a strong and solid story with a compelling, if deeply flawed central character who will stick with you for some time after you’ve finished the book.

Vultures at Twilight (Severn House) by Charles Atkins is a very different lesbian mystery. I used to read novels like this all the time when I was a kid–it has Agatha Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart all over it. Cozy with a distinctly murderous edge. Atkins is known for his much more grisly series featuring female forensic specialist Dr. Barrett Conyors. (Mother’s Milk is seriously good, if super disturbing.) But in Vultures at Twilight, Atkins, who is also a practicing psychiatrist, begins a new series in the little town of Grenville, Connecticut–known for antiquing and now, multiple murder.

Vultures at Twilight

Vultures at Twilight

Lillian Campbell (she narrates a significant portion of the story) and Ada Strauss are widows, neighbors and friends. Very good friends. They are also living in a retirement community, Pilgrim’s Progress. (I told you it was very Agatha Christie!) Their good friend Evie has died and Ada has been named as executrix. As Lil and Ada go through her house and her belongings, they also seek out a dealer for her many possessions, including an Impressionist painting that is worth a considerable amount.

But then one night at an auction, a severed finger turns up in a dresser drawer, begging the question, to whom did it belong?

Lil and Ada have a mystery on their hands–and more. Small towns are known for their secrets and it’s possible that Lil’s husband had a terrible one. As the plot thickens, both women find themselves in increasing danger–and in increasing danger of becoming more than friends.

Atkins has taken an entirely different tack with this new series from his previous work, but Lil and Ada are terrific characters. They are both wonderfully engaging and in a genre where detectives never age (how is Cornwell’s Scarpetta only 40something when she was born in 1954?), it’s refreshing to see some over 60s living real lives (although there’s a worrisome point where Lil has a heart catheterization and…).

Vultures at Twilight is a page turner and an edge-of-your-seat mystery. Definitely worth reading.

Seminal Murder (Regal Quest Books) is Mary Vermillion’s third mystery in the Mara Gilgannon series. Vermillion is an English professor who also teaches writing. She knows how to plot a story and how to turn a phrase. She also knows how to bring one of the major issues of lesbian life to the fore: the lesbian baby boom.

Seminal Murder

Seminal Murder

The novel opens on the maternity ward–Mylar balloons and flowers and snuffling toddlers fill the halls. But as some women know, not every woman leaves a maternity ward with a baby.

The story is an intriguing one: Mara is a radio personality who has been doing a series about alternative insemination (called artificial insemination in the novel, but we’ll make that political correction for Vermillion). Mara has nearly a thousand reasons for not wanting a child herself, but she’s been co-hosting the series with Dr. Grace Everest, a fertility specialist who runs a sperm bank and is dedicated to impregnating lesbians everywhere because Mara knows that every other lesbian in her Iowa town wants a baby.

Like Mara’s ex, Anne. She wants a baby. Desperately. It’s all she can think about as her biological clock ticks loudly in her head and pretty much everywhere she goes. Mara still cares a great deal for Anne, so she will do whatever necessary to help her. Including hook her up–in the turkey-baster sense–with Everest.

But then…Mara and Anne literally stumble on the good doctor. Murdered.

Fast forward and no one is doing a very good job of finding Everest’s killer so…Mara can’t help pursuing the case herself. What she discovers is shocking and explains a lot about why there is such difficulty among lesbians like Anne with achieving their desired pregnancies.

This book has everything in it but the laboratory sink–but it works. Right-wing lunatic fringe types led by the Rev. Leo Spires have threatened Dr. Everest, her sperm bank and the radio station where Mara works. A teenager wants Mara to find her “father”–a sperm donor. Did we mention that Anne wants to get pregnant. And who killed Grace?

Vermillion is strong on characters. Mara herself is immensely likable and unlike the standard brilliant amateur detective who knows more than the police ever could, she stumbles around looking for clues and not always finding them. Her best gay friend, Vince, enjoys theater and drag and does both exceedingly well. (I’m always happy to see some of my favorite Oscar Wilde quotes embedded in any text.) Grace is complicated as Mara remembers her, post-mortem. Zoey, the independent teenager, is terrific (and sure to be a side-kick of Mara’s in the next book in this series). Anne is very realistic as a baby-obsessed middle-aged lesbian. The book’s weakest character is Mara’s current partner, Bridget, who seemed way too disinterested in all the time Mara was spending with Anne, for whom she clearly still had lots of feelings. Bridget’s a bit of a cipher.

In Seminal Murder, Vermillion has crafted a tidy whodunit with an intriguing premise and a raft of solid queer characters and some good creepy villains in the right-wing Christian activists. Entertaining with a political edge. (Note to newbies: Read the other books in the series first–Death by Discount and Murder by Mascot or you’ll find yourself a little confused for the first 50 or so pages.)

Paranormal and GCLS award-winning author Kate McLachlan has gone with a straight mystery in her latest novel, Hearts, Dead and Alive (Quest Books). Kim Wayland is doing a project with her fifth-grade class, making topographical maps and loses a ring that isn’t hers in the process. She’d been given the ring to hold onto by her friend Becca–the friend she wants to be much more than a friend to–that morning when she’d taken Becca to the hospital for surgery. She’d been wearing the ring like a teenager, feeling like Becca hadn’t just handed it to her but had given it to her.

Heart, Dead and Alive

Hearts, Dead and Alive

And now she’d lost it. (She’d put it in a paper cup which is accidentally tossed.) Which is how she ends up in the dumpster outside the school, searching through the trash. It’s there she finds a real no-longer-live heart. She recognizes the smell immediately from a childhood experience dissecting cow hearts for science class.


So when Kim is perched on the dumpster searching for Becca’s ring, she gets a whiff of heart and then, there it is, straight out of Poe. She knows it’s not beating, she knows it’s fully dead, could even be one of those cow hearts from her science class years ago, but she gets the heebie jeebies anyway and instead of doing what she should–report it–she just tosses it aside, assuming it is indeed someone’s science experiment and keeps looking for Becca’s ring.

Alas for Kim, the heart gets reported and her fingerprints are on it. Detectives arrive at her classroom and take her down the hall for questioning. She bursts into tears almost immediately “I didn’t know it was human!” she cries.

As the investigation continues, Kim becomes more of a suspect than anyone had imagined. She’d recently been outed at the school, parents considered her suspect already. She needs to fix this and fast.

With the help of her straight friend Annie, another friend, Lucy, and of course, Becca, Kim sets out to prove she was not responsible for the human heart in the dumpster.

The ending to this by turns creepy, grisly and humorous novel is truly surprising, as is the romantic twist.

McLachlan is good with humor–her characters are funny as well as realistic. The plot, though a little thin, works surprisingly well and has a nice political edge to it.

The mystery is solved in a bit of a rush, however, and the romantic twist seems to come out of nowhere. Some readers may find that unsatisfying. But Kim herself is endearing and could definitely return as an amateur detective in a future novel. Worth a look.

Victoria Brownworth photo

About: Victoria Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, 'From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth' won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, 'Ordinary Mayhem,' won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book 'Erasure: Silencing Lesbians' and her next novel, 'Sleep So Deep,' will both be published in 2016. @VABVOX

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