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Radical / Riddle: A Critical-into-Creative Methodology for Queer Hardboiled Detective Fiction


Radical / Riddle: A Critical-into-Creative Methodology for Queer Hardboiled Detective Fiction


By Margot Douaihy

“If you do the crime, you do the time,” the old adage warns. For me, though, crime time was the best part of the week. On Sunday nights during my youth, the PBS television channel aired the Masterpiece Mystery program: detective shows like Poirot and Miss Marple. Mysteries were the only entertainment interest shared by all family members. I found myself deeply engaged by these murder mysteries, jewel heists, and tales of blackmail, in turn, by detective fiction; both are formats that dare the audience to lean in and match wits with the amateur or professional detective. The process and promise of deduction enticed me. As a queer woman who came of age during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, I was my own amateur sleuth, trying—unsuccessfully—to crack codes, decipher mixed cultural messages, and navigate shifting social norms. When I was closeted, I became skilled in the arts of masquerade and secret-keeping. I tried to be an interpreter of moments and people, reading scenes and reading between the lines. I therefore found solace in the misfits of crime storytelling: the grey-haired spinster who was risible or invisible to the virile police chief, the eccentric gumshoe, the hard-drinking private investigator (PI), and the punctilious inspector, derided for his “queer” praxis, though his peculiarities enhanced his deduction skills. Popular sleuth characters like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple all possess uniquely magnetic energies within their story worlds—recognizing patterns ignored by the “authorities,” connecting clues no one else noticed—and I was drawn into their investigative orbits.  

Stories by Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, and the subsequent screen adaptations of them, sparked my curiosity about other modes of detective storytelling, and thus I read foundational American hardboiled PI novels such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929), Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1953), and Mickey Spillane’s The Snake (1964). Discovering the hardboiled school was revelatory; it ignited a new facet of my creative process and seeded a lifelong craft obsession. I admired Christie’s Poirot for his extreme quirkiness and laser-beam precision, but I was jealous of the hardboiled hero’s brio. I also appreciated the gritty poetry trembling within Chandler’s wise-guy narration (“To say goodbye is to die a little”).[1]

In my closeted years, a period in which I was terrified that my homophobic community might discover my truth, I devoured tales of slangy private eyes who said whatever they wanted to say and swaggered on the mean streets with a boldness I wished I could access. Even if he was double-crossed or agitated (“I drove home chewing my lip”[2]), the hardboiled PI character still managed to knee a crook in the face and slap a gun out of an enemy’s hand (“It was easy”[3]), exuding a devil-may-care brazenness I desperately wanted to possess. The PI’s nuanced bravado is an essential convention in the hardboiled genre, the American response to classic British detective stories by writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Josephine Tey, in which the fastidious sleuths usually solved mysteries from a distance.

A global inquiry hovered like a drone above my localized interests in crime fiction. Since gay sex was still criminalized in many American states, I wondered about my own criminality, or, at the very least, if I seemed suspicious to others. The same month that I “came out of the closet”—a phrase that enhanced the theatricality of my alterity—I was sent to a psychiatrist trafficked in a brand of thinly-veiled gay conversation therapy. In the vulnerability of that period, I found succor in the temerity, wisecracks, and cynical quips of the PI loner. I fixated on the hardboiled PI—a complex character who occupied the body as well as the mind, ready to punch or insult an enemy. The PI’s impudence is critically linked to narrative consequences. As Lee Horsley observes, “The hardboiled style is vitalized by his verbal combativeness.”[4] Chandler’s PI Philip Marlowe, for example, handles a Luger as confidently as dispensing a wisecrack. A gun and a smartass rejoinder are both weapons that provide a level of power and protection.   

The hardboiled sleuth’s tireless nerve, even on a doomed quest, was an intellectual and personal refuge in my formative years and it continues to serve as the core influence in my crime fiction method. Reading and writing were my passions; they helped to form my identity. But the erosion of self-confidence resulting from the erasure and contortions of my internalized homophobia made me doubt my agency as a creative practitioner. My dearth of self-confidence was so pronounced, I wondered if I was dyslexic; I had to read and reread books over and over again to ensure full comprehension and decode the slang. I searched for characters that looked like me, thought like me, or acted like me. Another question played on repeat: Did I possess the critical faculties to engage with texts beyond mere escapism? Nonetheless, I kept at it, lured by the appeal of the PI as I tried to scribble my way into the hardscrabble hardboiled world. 

Creatively reading and engaging with the culturally reflective styles of hardboiled fiction, as well as the avenging-angel trope of the PI, set me on the course of scaffolding my own crime fiction series with a deep investment in queerness, a fresh interpretation of the “hardboiled voice,” and an acknowledgement of the challenges of living a purpose-driven life in the “nastiness” of a broken, turbulent world.[5] My aim was to inhabit and subvert the wise-guy code, importing familiar conventions into a feminist-queer character. I also wanted to expand on another key hardboiled trope, the tense interrelation of place and vocation, injected with the frictions and growing pains of 21st-century identity politics. Thus, I conceived The Scorched Cross: A Sister Holiday, a crime novel in which I recast the “lone wolf” as an iconoclastic tattooed nun named Sister Holiday whose search for redemption and spiritual meaning intertwines with her hunt for the arsonist/murderer who is targeting her religious community.

To establish the cultural/geographic tensions in the novel, the sleuth protagonist makes a move considered countercultural and regressive by her peers. An erstwhile out lesbian when she lived in Brooklyn, Holiday chooses to become celibate Sister Holiday, adopting a new name and new life in a New Orleans social justice convent. I composed the first draft in this way to build a framework within the novel that allows one newly sanctioned and expanding North American cultural identity (queerness) to overlap with a constricting cultural identity/institution (organized religion), like two sine waves.[6] Despite Sister Holiday’s sincere efforts to take control of her destiny, and the exigency and immediate consequences of her decision to convert, the sleuth fears she may never understand who she is or who she is meant to be (“Look at me. Who am I?”).[7] These braided mysteries and anxieties fuel Sister Holiday’s mission—at times myopic—to unmask the arsonist and solve the puzzle. Embarking on a quixotic or inherently dangerous quest is another key feature of the traditional hardboiled tale, and indeed, for the PI who makes a living in the shadowy world of “trouble.”[8] Wherever I am able, and it is useful for the project, I try to mirror the testing of genre axioms with the testing of character credulity. Both genre itself and the characters who occupy genre pages are identifiable yet fluid—recognizable and ever evolving.

 The select parallels between a fictional loner sleuth and my experience as a formerly invisible (closeted) and now out-and-proud queer woman resonate with me, but the process of reading popular hardboiled stories required calibration. This calibration was necessary not because of the craft, which I have always found to be profluent, riveting, profoundly instructive, and devastatingly lyrical,[9] but because of my interpretations of content which I perceived to be, at times, sexist, racist, and homophobic. Through Philip Marlowe’s eyes, women are either gold diggers, femme fatales, unsexed secretaries, or, as he narrates in the story “Red Wind,” in Trouble Is My Business, “meek little wives.”[10] As Sara Paretsky asserts, Dashiell Hammett’s character of Brigid O’Shaughnessy is not only predatory, she is one-dimensional, existing “only in the body.”[11] Many of hardboiled’s female characters, with their largely predictable storylines, exemplify the narrowness of repertoires of femininity. 

The push-pull tension in my creative practice is undeniable; I am attracted to hardboiled’s stylistic virtuosity, voice-driven experience, and the sleuth’s barbed charms, but I am repulsed by expressions of misogyny, racism, and homophobia. We do not read texts in a vacuum. Even when reading solely for pleasure, we still bring the colors and contours of our life experiences to the process of reading(s). Therefore, as a queer intersectional feminist reader, I find some canonical content abhorrent but am still fascinated by its enduring appeal and the broader implications for genre.

Understanding cultural/historical contexts and authorial intentions is a crucially important element of actively engaging with any text, and this certainly applies to the “sexist thrust” of a hardboiled novel.[12] Indeed, even novels containing characters who pillory queer people and exalt violence against women are not so problematized that they cannot be utilized as productive tools within a Creative Writing practice.[13] In fact, what I discovered through my immersion in the worlds of the canonical hardboileds was a strong desire to engage with their historical and ideological contexts, attempt to transpose storylines into a contemporary setting, widen the conversation, broaden the scope, and diversify my reading list.[14] Concepts and ideas codified by the hardboiled school, such as person versus persona, the rhetorical and linguistic power(s) of voice, and how to narrativize “revelation” are fecund territories for the wider intellectual and literary discourse. I was therefore grateful to discover the neo-hardboiled feminist books by Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton that debuted in the 1980s. The plucky female protagonists of their novels—Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone—subverted sexist hardboiled tropes while appropriating the PI’s terse style, from deployment of wisecracks and invectives (“I could outcuss him any day of the week”), to a spare narrative style free of extravagant flourish.[15] Engaging with these novels prompted me to consider “otherness” as an investigative asset rather than a liability. Closely reading and expanding on the neo-hardboiled feminist novels gave me a platform to identify and consider the multitudinous benefits of femininity and female intuition—admittedly within a binary framework—as they related to narrative consequences and the rubber-meets-the-road aspects of PI work, such as the “plodding nature and infinite patience” of Grafton’s PI Millhone.[16] Similarly, my sleuth, Sister Holiday, is a stubborn, needling shapeshifter who can “hide in plain sight” and leverage both her clerical authority and low- or high-femme signatures, as needed, to code switch, enjoin congregants, and disguise herself to pass if/when she needs access to prohibited physical or emotional territories.[17]  

Paretsky’s and Grafton’s hardboiled counter-traditions and wise guy reversals were energizing for my creative practice, but their feminist PIs (chick dicks) are emphatically straight. I began to wonder: how would a lesbian sleuth define and deliver justice? How would a queer femme fatale operate? How would rigorous applications of critical and queer theories, particularly “paranoid reading” and the “additive and accretive” tools of “reparative reading,” examined in the luminous critical work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, inform my analysis of canonical hardboiled and neo-hardboiled texts? Similarly, what metacognitive synthesis might be sparked by Sedgwick’s analysis as I sat down to formulate queer temporality and queer causality in a hardboiled “whodunit” mystery, a narrative defined by the centrality of a deontic inquiry—a question that is obliged to be answered?[18]   

With the discovery of Scottish lesbian author Val McDermid’s contemporary crime novels and 1980s/1990s-era lesbian detective fiction by North American authors such as Katherine V. Forrest, Barbara Wilson, and Laurie R. King, and their queer inheritors, I had found the lesbian detective content I was craving. These works build on hardboiled conventions and invite readers into expansive intertextual conversations, making connections between novels. The influential derring-do of Forrest, Wilson, and King’s queer sleuths and other “dyke dicks” of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s was followed by later LGBTQX incarnations, such as the Bobbi Logan Mysteries (debuting in 2012) by transgender author Renee James featuring a transwoman amateur sleuth; Stevie Mikayne’s lesbian mysteries led by PI Jillienne Kidd (Bold Strokes Books); Cheryl A. Head’s Charlie Mack Motown Mysteries (Bywater Books), contemporary intersectional novels in which a Black bisexual PI battles against crime in Detroit as well as her own internalized homophobia; and my own unlikely sleuth, Sister Holiday. In my mystery series, Sister Holiday steps into the role of the lone wolf. She’s as mouthy as PI Mike Hammer and contemplative as PI Philip Marlowe—a deeply faithful yet rebellious queer nun who, as she searches for the killer, fights for the victims and for herself. As Sister Holiday investigates the crime and pieces together clues, she interrogates her own imbricated identities and contradictory desires.

A section of this article previously appeared in “Sapphic Sleuth,” a critical essay submitted as part of a doctoral thesis titled “Sapphic Sleuth: Investigating Identity, Causality, and Craft in Lesbian Detective Fiction” at Lancaster University, UK, in 2019. The Sister Holiday Mystery Series is represented by Laura Macdougall and Olivia Davies, United Agents.

[1] Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992), p. 365.
[2] Ibid. p. 8.
[3] Raymond Chandler, Trouble Is My Business (New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992), p. 21.
[4] Lee Horsley, “Hard-boiled/Noir Fiction in Twentieth Century Crime Fiction, in A Companion to Twentieth-Century United States Fiction, ed. by David Seed (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2009), pp. 135–146 (p. 136).
[5] “You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was a part of the nastiness now.” —Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (New York: Random House/Vintage Books Edition, 1988), p. 139.
[6] “In 1965 in the United States we were 180,000 nuns strong. Today we number 60,000, with a median age of seventy-plus and only a tiny trickle of new members entering the community—all of them older now.” —Sister Helen Prejean, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey (New York: Random House, 2019), p. 123.
[7] The Scorched Cross: A Sister Holiday Mystery  
[8] In Raymond Chandler’s short story “Trouble Is My Business,” Detective Lieutenant Finlayson tells PI Marlowe, “Guys like you get into a lot of trouble,” to which Marlowe responds, “Trouble is my business (…) how else would I make a nickel?” Trouble Is My Business (New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992), p. 57.
[9] “Dead. What a cold black noiseless word in any language.” —Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992), p. 318.
[10] Raymond Chandler“Red Wind,” Trouble Is My Business (New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992), p. 162
[11] Sara Paretsky, “The long shadow of the Falcon,” The Guardian (2000)
[12] “Many women readers are well aware of the sexist thrust of [Chandler’s] books but still read with pleasure and against the grain his elegant, supple, multivocal style, or styles.” —Stephen Knight, in Crime Fiction since 1800: Detection, Death, Diversity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 120.
[13] “all this in the daytime had a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party.” —Raymond Chandler, The Big
Sleep (New York: Random House/Vintage Books Edition, 1988), p. 39.
[14] “[a] pansy has no iron in his bones.” —Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (New York: Random
House/Vintage Books Edition, 1988), p. 61.
[15] Sue Grafton, D Is for Deadbeat: A Kinsey Millhone Mystery (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p.
[16] Sue Grafton, A is for Alibi: A Kinsey Millhone Mystery (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1982), p.
[17] The Scorched Cross: A Sister Holiday Mystery
[18] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002). pp. 123–151 (p. 149).

About the author

Margot Douaihy, PhD, is the author of Scranton Lace and Girls Like You, both published by Clemson University Press. Her work has been featured in PBS NewsHour, The Florida Review, The Madison Review, The Tahoma Literary Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Atticus Review. She is the editor of the Northern New England Review.

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