Sister in crime
Katherine V. Forrest talks about dyke detectives, the closet, and
by Devra First
Police detective Kate Delafield is interviewing Peri
Layton, a hotshot female paleoanthropologist whose father's body has just been
found at the La Brea Tar Pits. Not terribly romantic circumstances, but
nonetheless, the two are making eyes at each other. The officer shouldn't be
flirting -- her girlfriend is waiting for her at home -- but she can't help
herself; the paleoanthropologist is awfully attractive.
A lesbian detective? You betcha. Cross Miss Marple with k.d. lang, Sherlock
Holmes with Candace Gingrich, and you've got Kate Delafield: ex-Marine,
homicide detective for the LAPD, queer-as-the-day-is-long heroine of seven
mystery novels and counting. In Kate's newest vehicle, Sleeping Bones
(Berkley Prime Crime), it's up to her to find out who murdered Peri Layton's
dad. Could it have been the sexy paleoanthropologist herself? Will anything
come of Kate and Peri's attraction to each other? What's the deal with the
mysterious fossil that turns up at the tar pits? And will Kate's new partner be
The person who determines the answers to these questions is writer Katherine
V. Forrest, Kate Delafield's creator. The 60-year-old San Francisco resident
has won much critical acclaim for her mystery novels over the years, both from
the queer press and from mainstream literary publications. She has won two
Lambda Book Awards for Kate Delafield books, one for 1989's The Beverly
Malibu and another for 1991's Murder by Tradition. But Forrest is
perhaps best known for her romance novel Curious Wine, first published
by Naiad Press in 1983.
Ask a lesbian who came out before then what the first lesbian novel she ever
read was, and she'll probably tell you -- with a look of wry disdain -- that it
was The Well of Loneliness. But ask the same question of someone in her
late teens or early 20s, and if she smiles, looks dreamy, or gets an "I'm now
remembering my first love" look on her face, chances are that her answer will
be Curious Wine. The antidote to the unhappy tale of Radclyffe Hall's
"invert" Stephen Gordon, Curious Wine presents the story of Lane
Christianson, a lawyer, and Diana Holland, a personnel assistant, who meet at a
cabin at Lake Tahoe. Irresistibly drawn to each other, Lane and Diana fall in
love, and -- after some, but not too much, turmoil and confusion -- live
together happily ever after.
"There's nothing I love more when I'm making appearances around the country
than meeting some young woman who tells me that Curious Wine was the
first lesbian novel she ever read, because The Well of Loneliness was
the first one I ever read," says Forrest. "I'm just really glad there's a very
different world out there, and that I've been a part in helping to change
Her fans are glad, too. Guen Gifford, 27, came out at the age of 12, just one
year after Curious Wine was published. Although it wasn't the first
lesbian novel she ever read, it was one of the most significant. "I read
several mostly mediocre and unsatisfying dyke romances in high school," she
says, "but didn't find Curious Wine until I was 21. For me, it's the
most beautiful. I've read some other good ones, but it's the one that most
moves me. It's the one that fills me with the beauty and wonder of women loving
Although some might consider romance novels frivolous, Curious Wine
broke through many misconceptions about lesbians and lesbian relationships.
Lane and Diana are both attractive professionals in their mid 30s who have had
plenty of heterosexual experience. They're hardly corruptible naives, or women
too ugly to get men. "I just attacked as many stereotypes as I could in that
book," Forrest says. "I consider it a very political book, even though nobody
else sees it but me. I basically wrote the book that I wanted to read, because
prior to Curious Wine there was just nothing I could find that conveyed
the passion and the rightness of our relationships, and how beautiful women are
This veiled politics is just as much a part of the Kate Delafield series. When
she started working on it, concerned about accuracy, Forrest tried to find a
gay or lesbian member of the LAPD who would take a look at her manuscript. No
one was willing to talk to her. So she began writing about the homophobia
entrenched in the police department, about what life was like for gay and
lesbian officers in and out of the closet. "The whole issue of the closet," she
says, "is one I think all gay and lesbian writers should be writing about. It's
still the great unfinished business of our community. It's a big issue in my
Indeed, Kate Delafield herself has only one foot out of the closet, and she
pulls it back in whenever anyone is looking. "Kate is a woman with great
personal integrity who has a lot of character, but she does not see her one
great flaw, which is that she is in the closet," says Forrest. "She doesn't see
that it's isolated her professionally, she doesn't see that it's very much
starting to impact her relationship with the woman she loves, who is out of the
closet. The truth of the matter, and one of the things that I try to show in
the series, is that the closet kills. It kills us spiritually, and it kills us
emotionally, and sometimes it kills us physically."
Since Forrest began writing the Kate Delafield series in 1984, enough people
have followed in her footsteps to make lesbian mystery a genre in its own
right. There's Sandra Scoppettone's Lauren Laurano series, Claire McNab's Carol
Ashton series, Mary Wings's Emma Victor series, Ellen Hart's Jane Lawless
series -- even Martina Navratilova has written a mystery series, with co-author
Liz Nickles, about tennis star/sleuth Jordan Myles.
Why do so many lesbian authors write mystery novels? "I can't speak for my
sisters in crime," Forrest says, "but it's a wonderful method for me to address
some of the issues that really matter to us as a community. You can do it
without preaching to readers; readers hate being preached to, this one
included. You can have some of these really serious issues like gay bashing and
child abuse and the closet, and have them be absolutely intrinsic to the plot."
And then there's the hottie, er, the role-model factor: "You have a strong
female character as your central figure, and I think that lesbians -- and all
women -- are very hungry for those images in our fiction, because they're still
not all that common. In these books, a very strong lesbian figure actually goes
out and is proactive and makes a difference."
Forrest is modest about her role in the development of the lesbian-mystery
genre. "They say life is all luck and timing," she says, "and I think I've been
very lucky and I've had really wonderful timing to come of age as a writer just
as our community went on this incredible rocket ride of visibility, and just as
our literature started to take off in so many wonderful different
But writer Melissa Hartman gives her a lot more credit than that. Forrest --
who worked as an editor at Naiad for 10 years -- edited Hartman's first book,
The Sure Thing, and also helped out on her new book, Talk Show,
recently published by New Victoria. "The fact that mystery, particularly the
lesbian serial detective mystery, is the lesbian fiction genre that is
published today is due in large part, if not wholly, to Katherine and her
creation, Kate Delafield," Hartman says. "I think that Katherine has set the
industry standard as far as the genre goes. Her writing is as much a model for
writers today as it was in the early '80s, when she was one of the few `out'
there, doing scary, brave things that have allowed people like me an
opportunity to write that otherwise would have been denied."
The Lambda Literary Foundation agrees: it gave Forrest its Pioneer Award
earlier this year. "I don't feel like a pioneer," says Forrest, chuckling, "but
nevertheless I felt like I couldn't exactly hand it back and say, `Could you
wait a few more years, please?' "
In 1996, Forrest switched publishers, from Naiad to Berkley Prime Crime, a
division of Penguin Putnam. Forrest feels that the work she's been applauded
for by the gay community has not been compromised by this move. "Nobody [at
Berkley Prime Crime] has ever asked me to change any lesbian content, and the
word `lesbian' is plastered all over my books," she says. "They have pink
triangles on them. I think that there's an assumption out there that you're
going to somehow tone down or pare back your books at a mainstream press, and I
can tell you that I haven't done that. I've not been asked to, and frankly I
wouldn't do it if I were."
Says Gilda Bruckman, co-owner of New Words bookstore in Cambridge, "Katherine
Forrest has gone from being published by one of the oldest women's presses to
being published by one of the largest mainstream presses. She's maintained her
following in the lesbian community and, I imagine, expanded it. People always
come in and ask for her books."
The expanded audience is a nice fringe benefit, but that wasn't what prompted
Forrest to switch publishers. "I wasn't trying to reach a mainstream audience,"
she explains. "I was hoping for wider review coverage so that more lesbians
would know about me and would find my books."
Nonetheless, if film director Tim Hunter has his way, a mainstream audience
soon will be learning about Forrest's work. Hunter has optioned the Kate
Delafield book Murder at the Nightwood Bar, and, after many false
starts, it looks as if the movie might finally get made. "If and when this does
get to the screen," says Forrest, who envisions someone like Sigourney Weaver
playing Kate, "I think we should make Tim an honorary lesbian for the sheer
determination he's shown. I've given up many times, and he never has."
In the meantime, Forrest says, she's got a few more Kate Delafield novels
up her sleeve -- maybe three or four -- and she's currently at work on a sequel
to her second book, Daughters of a Coral Dawn, which is a work of
science fiction. "Not very many people in this world really get to do what they
love. To have had the opportunity to build a career and build a body of work --
I've just been extraordinarily fortunate," she says. "What also keeps me
writing is being a member of this community. There's a lot that we still need
to do, and I feel like I'm one of the people recording our history. I'm glad to
be there. I'm proud to be there. I'm gonna keep on being there."
Devra First can be reached at dfirst[a]phx.com.
Respond to this article.