Sunday, June 26, 2022

How Queer Is Classic Mystery? Perhaps It's a Question of Suspense!

Was there a "queer influence" in classic mystery and, if so, how significant was it?  And what was it?  I have identified over forty LGBTQ, or possibly LGTBQ, vintage crime writers born between 1859 and 1927, from Fergus Hume to Marijane Meaker, the last of whom, at the age of 95, is still with us. 

Still part of the problem with this exercise is the hold which the closet held over people in these days.  Coming out as queer could mean, if not jail time, at the least personal disgrace and economic ruin.  Surprise, surprise, almost none of these people ever came out publicly, barring Meaker, Patricia Highsmith (a onetime partner of Meaker) and a few other people who survived into the post-Stonewall era. 

In 1987 Hugh Wheeler likely died from AIDS complications (as far as I know he was the only vintage crime writer to die as a result of AIDS), less than two years after the demise of actor Rock Hudson from AIDS shook up the country.  Hugh never did come out, although he lived successively and intimately with two men for over half a century, remaining closeted from the straight world to the end. 

In the United Kingdom one of the most notable gay male vintage crime writers, Rupert Croft-Cooke, was forcibly outed when he was victimized in a disgraceful "lavender scare" prosecution in the mid-1950s.  However, Richard Hull probably was gay (if anyone has any evidence one way or the other, I would love to see it), as unquestionably were CHB Kitchin and Beverley Nichols, all of whom made interesting contributions to the mystery field.  

Academic GDH Cole, despite being married was sexually and emotionally attracted to his own sex, something which his own wife, Margaret, writes about with marvelous dispassion in her biography of Cole.  His detective novel The Death of a Millionaire (1925) is one of the queerest detective novels extant.  

On the other side of gender coin, prominent UK mystery writer Mary Fitt was a lesbian who lived with her female partner for three decades and it seems likely that Gladys Mitchell was and possibly Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh as well, certainly an impressive quartet.  Surely Joyce Porter was a lesbian too?  Nancy Spain was one of England's most famous lesbians, an out-but-not-out celebrity queer, but her impact on crime fiction is decidedly eccentric, to say the least.

In the United States there were, aside from Patricia Highsmith, another once very prominent mid-century crime writer, Ruth Fenisong, who was lesbian, as well as that interesting couple who comprised the short-lived author Roger Scarlett, Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, but the most notable group of queer American vintage crime writers was all-male (four of whom, oddly, lived at some point in Philadelphia, apparently without ever having met each other, aside from the couple Webb and Wheeler): 

Rufus King, a sophisticated New Yorker who was one of most successful crime writers of the Thirties and Forties

Todd Downing, an Oklahoma Choctaw who made a great splash in the Thirties but then retired from writing

Milton Propper, a Philadelphian who likewise enjoyed success in the Thirties

George Bagby (Aaron Marc Stein), a tremendously prolific mystery writer over half a century

and last, but certainly not least,

Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler, who wrote together (and apart) as Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge and were very popular and highly praised

Stein is kind of hard to get a handle on for me, because he wrote so much and I have barely sampled his work.  He published over 100 crime novels, making him one of the big leaguers, at least in terms of output.  He strikes me as more imitative than original, but perhaps that goes with the territory when you write that much (although John Street and Edgar Wallace strike me as more unique).

Propper was for about fifteen years the most notable American student of Freeman Wills Crofts.  (There had to be one!)

Downing was an "atmospheric" crime writer, a great admirer of John Dickon Carr (although his favorite crime writer was Rufus King), but like Carr he adhered to classic detection and never really moved into the suspense group.

That leaves Webb/Wheeler and King, who seem to me to share quite a bit of affinity with each other and together I think can be seen as having established a sort of queer domestic suspense school.  If a school can have only three teachers!

Both King and Webb (Wheeler didn't join in until 1935/36) started out pretty early in the vintage period, King in 1929 (discounting a couple of early efforts) and Webb in 1931.  Both were committed to the plotting mechanics of detection, although atmospherics and character were important in their work  (Rufus King from the get-go, Webb more so after he became Webb-Wheeler).

In the Forties, however, King dropped his series detective, Lieutenant Valcour, and devoted himself to non-series work that increasingly put dramatic emphasis on suspense.  Books from the Forties like Design in Evil, The Deadly Dove, Museum Piece No. 13, Lethal Lady, The Case of the Redoubled Cross, are all suspense tales with women protagonists.  

Although Webb and Wheeler never eliminated the formal puzzle aspect from their books, they moved as well more and more in the direction of suspense in the Forties and Fifties in their Patrick Quentin novels, which Wheeler wrote solo from the late Forties onward.  Wheeler's Patrick Quentin novels from Black Widow (1952) onward are all model examples of domestic suspense, it strikes me, although with a rather more sophisticated milieu than most of his feminine counterparts.  There's a sometime series detective, Lieutenant Trant, but he is seen by the characters as more of a menace and he acts more as a catalyst for emotional turmoil.  

I think it can be said that Rufus King and and Richard Webb/Hugh Wheeler played rather important roles in the development of the American crime novel over the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.  Atmospherics and suspense tend to be associated with vintage American women crime writers, from Mary Roberts Rinehart, Leslie Ford and Mignon Eberhart to Charlotte Armstrong, Elizabeth Fenwick and Margaret Millar (the latter Canadian-American), but King, Webb and Wheeler contributed a distinctly queer male element, giving women characters great scope and interest beyond what most straight male writers afforded them.  (Cornell Woolrich might be included here, but I remain unsatisfied in my mind as to whether he was really gay, as you can see in my Crimereads article here.  It's entirely possible that the most famous queer American male vintage crime writer may not in fact have been homosexual, although he was, well, if not queer decidedly odd, to be sure.)  

In their work we find something uniquely different from both the hard-boiled and "Humdrum" mysteries that are generally associated with male crime writers, yet also not quite duplicative of feminine domestic suspense.   Yet it's also not overt queer crime fiction either, with explicitly queer characters.  I don't believe any of these men ever produced a single piece of crime writing where the word "homosexual'" appears.

Call it what you will, it's queer-authored crime fiction from the era of the closet.  And it's some of the best and most remarkable crime fiction of the twentieth century.


  1. I remember reading speculation about A.E.W. Mason on the basis that he never married and that he was a friend of Oscar Wilde. The evidence seems inconclusive, reviewed in The Ruling Passion: British Colonial Allegory and the Paradox of Homosexual Desire by Christopher Lane
    ( ) from page 49. Apparently Wilde encouraged Mason to start writing and there's quite a lot about him in Mason's 'Sir George Alexander and the St. James’ Theatre' (1935).

    1. I didn't know that about Mason. There's definitely a sense of fine de siècle decadence about his Golden Age mysteries!

  2. Is there any evidence suggesting that Josephine Tey was lesbian? She kept house for her father for years, never married, and was very private, but surely that is not evidence. I have never heard of any indication, be it in her writing, in her choice of friends, in the way she dressed or posed for pictures, that she might be lesbian.

    1. Well, there's To Love and Be Wide, which has rather interesting things to say on gender. There's the same sex ambience of Miss Pym Disposes. There's her detective Grant, who seems a very committed bachelor. There's her play Richard of Bordeaux, which made a star of John Gielgud and certainly has powerfully queer intimation. I recollect that the author who has a Josephine Tey mystery series with Tey as sleuth made her lesbian, not that that's evidence. I always thought Tey rather mannish looking but can't recall many photos of her.

      Marsh with her deep voice and demeanor I could certainly see as lesbian, but in her books she is conspicuously hostile to gays and lesbians, it strikes me. However, her latest biographer definitely believes she was lesbian and in such a relationship and there's a novel which portrays her a cross dresser. On the other hand, maybe they were heterosexually inclined or asexual. As you know, I went over this ground with Cornell Woolrich!

    2. None of the points you provide regarding Tey warrants stating that she probably was lesbian, in my opinion. I did notice that you wrote "possibly" instead of "probably," but I think that the term "possibly," when taken literally, is essentially meaningless in this specific usage: Everything that is not absolutely and unquestionably impossible can be said to be possible. I interpreted you meant something more stronger than "not impossible."

      Your discussion of Woolrich were excellent, in my opinion, nuanced and based on actual newly discovered or re-covered historical facts/records. I was surprised that you did not seem to apply the same nuance and reticence to veer beyond the available evidence in that paragraph mentioning Tey and Marsh.

      Anyway, my skepticism about the statement about Tey (and Marsh) is likely based on little more than a slip of the pen or a difference in how we interpret the term "possibly" in that statement. Thanks for the response to my question, and for the interesting post!

    3. No, by possibly I meant possibly. As I said above I think Gladys Mitchell was likely a lesbian (I've been assured she was by a person whom claims to know but has never gone on record), give how she writes and details from her life, but all I could say about Tey and Marsh is possibly. That's one of the prices the closet exacts. It's only within the last decade that anyone acknowledged that Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler were gay and a couple. I think today it's only fair to fill in the erasures mandated by the closet.

      As I said, the author of the Tey mysteries, I believe, and Marsh's latest biographer have pushed the lesbian thesis. Obviously works of fiction aren't evidence, but you should read the Marsh biography and make what you will of her evidence. There are several possibilities. One can be heterosexual, homosexual, asexual, celibate. Mitchell whose work and biographical details seems suggestive to me herself once said she had an "academic knowledge" of sex, so make of that what you will. Marsh's psychology seems very complicated. Tey I know little enough about, barring the books. I haven't read the biographer but I gather she doesn't push the lesbian thesis.

      I agree we shouldn't try to impose sexualities on people in face of facts, or even the absence of facts. Just because a person didn't marry or have straight sexual relationships doesn't mean they were ipso facto gay or lesbian. Just as a person who married someone of the opposite sex wasn't necessarily straight.

      And of course stereotypes (i.e., femininize man, masculine woman) don't always mean what people may think. I remember Christianna Brand pronouncing that she thought Sayers was "a butch" the first time she met her at the Detection Club. But Sayers doesn't appear to have been remotely inclined that way at all, indeed, rather otherwise.

      What I had most wanted to was look at that interesting group of gay make American writers I mentioned later in the piece, and most of all Hugh Wheeler and Rufus King, who I think added something, not just as talented writers but as gay men, to the mystery genre.

      Cornell Woolrich has some of the same qualities, but with him I wanted to strip away what people think they know from Nevins' psychologically clumsy hatchet job and look at what we really do know. I think in Cornell we see someone with doubts about his masculinity, by which I mean doubts about his manliness, not necessarily "homosexual self-contempt" as Nevins sees it. Cornell had a lot of self-contempt in general. Hugh Wheeler and Rufus King, however, have the earmarks of PRIDE.

    4. Whoops typos of course in that long reply and I should clarify by Josephine Tey mysteries that I mean the mysteries that were written with Tey depicted as the detective. I forget the author but there were at least three books.

  3. Nicola Upson is the author of the "Josephine Tey" series to which you refer. There are now 10 in all. I am unconvinced by her interpretation but quite like the books. There is a biog of Tey by Jennifer Morag Henderson, updated in 2021 with intro by Val Mc Dermid which has mixed reviews and I have not yet read.

    1. Ah, thanks, was totally blanking on that. Yes, I need to look at the bio too, in more detail, but am dubious about the endeavor. Tey seems so enigmatic.