Watching the Detectives

Minneapolis mystery writer Ellen Hart has two fictional foils. One is an upstanding lesbian restaurateur; the other, a straight, cross-dressing food critic.

"I don't know any drug dealers. I don't know any pimps; I don't know any prostitutes. The mean streets are not where I live." Minneapolis mystery author Ellen Hart lets loose an indecorous guffaw. "I live with a family, in a comfortable house, on a nice street. So for me to write about what's real, I'm going to focus on the kind of stresses and strains that happen between people: mothers and grandmothers; fathers and daughters; lovers. That's the natural world of the traditional 'cozy' mystery."

Traditional, that is, if the definition stretches to include a lesbian Miss Marple and her flamboyantly fashion- and humility-impaired sidekick. Hart's debut novel, 1989's Hallowed Murder, followed close on the heels of the first well-written lesbian mysteries, by Barbara Wilson and Mary Wings. Compared with their Marlowesque P.I.s, though, Hart's earnest amateur snoop Jane Lawless would fit in on Murder, She Wrote. The beloved daughter of a respected defense attorney, Jane has, over the series's eight books, become the chef/owner of a Lake Harriet hot spot, bought a house in Linden Hills, and dated a doctor. She's senior counselor at homos-are-people-too camp. But is her creator likewise such a conciliatory character?

Tucked into an antique couch in her cluttered South Minneapolis home, Hart looks amazingly like the former fundamentalist Christian, ex-chef, poodle-owning lesbian mystery writer that she is. She's got a wide Midwestern face, bred here in the Cities. Her puffy auburn bob might have been lifted from the head of Julia Child; it's easy to imagine her in a white apron, swilling "1995 Chateau Mandagot Montpeyroux" (which Jane savors in Hart's latest, Wicked Games). Under her button-down Oxford and jeans swells the comfortable roundness of a daily desk-sitter. She sports the ready laugh and baggy eyes of someone who has made mistakes, and learned from them.

The theology degree at an "early Jesus freak" college in California, for instance. "I don't know what I was thinking," Hart says now. "Women couldn't be ministers; they could only be ministers' wives. But I never really wanted to get married." She did meet a good friend there, and played piano at herwedding. That marriage broke up, but Hart and her friend grew closer: Last year, she and Kathy celebrated two decades together. They share the house, Kathy's grandsons, two eager black poodle puppies, and one very large white Regal poodle. And the fundamentalist Christian background came in handy when Hart started another detective series, featuring a straight woman who leaves such beliefs--and a son--for life as a cross-dressing restaurant critic.

Lest Hart's muse seem unduly frivolous, rest assured that the Sophie Greenway books, like the Jane Lawless mysteries, flirt with wit rather than froth and do not lack for seriousness. Front and center in the Greenway series is a straight mother's unconditional acceptance of her offspring's queer choices--some propaganda for the books' projected hetero readers. But also history wistfully rewritten: "Interestingly enough, when Rudy came out to his mother," Hart says of her characters, "Sophie said exactly what I would've wanted my mother to say to me: 'I'm happy for you.'" Hart laughs ruefully. "It's not enough for Rudy. His issues are religious." In other words, even a mother's love can't wipe out a lifetime of shaming sermons. Families don't exist in a vacuum.

Hart says she's careful to sprinkle bad and good qualities equitably among her straight and gay characters. But one might discern a prevailing gay sensibility in the empathy Hart almost invariably shows her villains: Whether they're abuse survivors, thwarted activists, or fearful patriarchs, they each disclose compelling reasons for their violence. Sometimes they're attempting to protect their families. A few times their victims are such appalling people that the reader cheers as they're cut down. Nearly always, the misguided murderer kills to keep some shameful peccadillo under wraps.

"R.D. says being gay or lesbian allows you to see that truth operates on a lot of different levels, as do lies," Hart reports of fellow Twin Cities mystery writer R.D. Zimmerman. "I think maybe we have a special ability to understand when to release information and when not to--and that's what a mystery is."

 

The book Hart counts as her best (and rightly so) could serve as a model for how to time a narrative release. Murder in the Air (1997) stirs together mother love, radio drama, and parallel murders set 30 years apart with the confidence of a Reginald Hill or Amanda Cross. At the heart of the book's contested relationships is the deceptiveness of appearances--another successful cross-dresser being only the most obvious example. "It's a book I couldn't have written 10 years ago," Hart notes. "I just loved writing that book. I could write 12 pages a day, when with other books, I struggle for a page, a paragraph. Sometimes books are greater than the sum of their parts, and that was one."

Murder in the Air was not, Hart reports, the favorite of its publisher. Ballantine, the house that owns partial paperback rights to the Lawless series, publishes the Greenway books as original mass markets. The marketing folks are trying to niche-promote them as "culinary mysteries": "They feel that those things are hot right now. The problem being, I've yet to read a culinary mystery!" Hart hoots loudly. "The ones that I see out there tend to be pretty fluffy." Still, she has promised Ballantine to send Greenway closer to the kitchen next time out. However, Hart says, "if they sit on that too hard, it will be a problem for me."

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