One of the most delightful things about the novel Maria-sama ga Miteru ~Ibara no Mori was the description of Sei, the compulsive reader, looking for stories that reflected what she was going through, this unspoken, confusing and many ways, distressing love of another girl. She found things about homosexuality, of course, that treated it as a pathology and, based on the descriptions of the stuff she read, she found herself staring down the Well of Loneliness and other dire lesbian classics.
I loved this section of the novel, because I too was young, and combing through the library, trying to find books that didn’t make me want to stab myself. I wasn’t, thank the gods, looking for confirmation…I just wanted to read a good book with lesbians.
I was lucky. I found Desert of the Heart, by Jane Rule and Beebo Brinker, by Ann Bannon and I found lesbian mysteries. Murder at the Nightwood Bar by Katherine V. Forrest launched me into a 1990s full of volumes of lesbian-protagonist mysteries. Naiad Press was publishing them in droves and I was haunting Barnes and Noble, (this was so long ago Borders did not yet exist and B&N’s “Gay and Lesbian Fiction” shelves were a second home) buying them and borrowing them at the library, Dozens, maybe hundreds of lesbians with long-dead lovers, with drinking problems who weren’t out, who were out and suffering from institutional homophobia, being stalked and tortured and beaten and eventually catching the bad guy. So, so many mysteries. So many, in fact, I became absolutely sick to death of mysteries.
At then end of the decade, there were two authors left I could stand. Forrest kept writing, left Naiad for a major publisher and her character, Kate Delafield, out and comfortable at last, became more comfortable for me to read. And Ellen Hart, whose Jane Lawless mysteries scratched an itch for lesbian characters who were not suffering from homophobia, alcoholism, or trauma. Although Jane had the prerequisite long-dead lover, she ran a restaurant, had a female Oscar Wilde as a side-kick and was quite likable. I always liked Jane.
But, as I mention, I left mysteries behind me. And I had not realized that Ellen Hart was still writing them. Until last year, when I discovered Ellen Hart on Facebook,I also discovered Jane once more. And just after I had caught up to Hart’s last book, (the Fates must have found this hilarious, I swear I can hear them giggling,) it tuns out that her new publisher is an imprint of a large publisher and her editor is a friend of mine. And so, with thanks to the publisher, I had a chance to make the last of my summer reads, Ellen Hart’s newest Jane Lawless mystery, The Grave Soul.
It was an excellent book.
The construction was turned inside out a bit, so we begin with the aftermath of the crisis, then work our way back in to it. We, the reader, always know that aftermath and so the tension is turned way up throughout the book without us actually having to go through the crisis itself. When all too many novels these days are merely prologues to violence, stalking and torture scenes in the name of “suspense,” this approach worked to create a lot more suspense without having to subject us to violence porn.
It was good to revisit Jane Lawless, the restaurateur who sleuths on the side, good that she broke up with her horrible girlfriend in the last novel, good that they did not get back together in this one. Cordelia, her side-kick, is always too much to be believable, but that is what we like about her. She’s the comedic relief in the Shakespearean sense of the word.
The story was tightly written. The mystery was a classic small-town murder, but one in which Miss Marple had to come from out of town in order to make sense of it. And the ending was appropriately Agatha-Christie-like as well.
All in all, an excellent revisit to an obsession of my youth, long before Yuri manga, and long before Jane (or I) was so comfortable with saying the word “gay.” In this case, I was able to come home again and find that what has changed, has changed for the better.
It was a good read, and I’m glad that Ellen Hart is still out there plugging away at it. ^_^
Overall – 8
Facebook is your friend. Ellen Hart, Katherine V. Forrest, Ann Bannon and many other lesbian writers of the past and present are there and you should totally take a look at their books. This is your literature.