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Watching the Detectives

"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 her wedding. 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."

The Jane Lawless series, long published by Seattle lesbian/feminist press Seal, has had a built-in market from the start. Hart isn't entirely sure, however, that she wants to be known as a "gay niche" writer. For one thing, it's not clear whether the "gay community" alone can or will support such a niche. For another, "because I am strongly identified with that market, there are [straight] people who won't read me." Finally, and, one gathers, most important, Hart has found that some gay readers still think that gay authors should be in the business of creating positive lesbian characters--ones that conform to known models. Jane's buddy, the eccentric and colorful Cordelia Thorn, seems designed to tweak any such expectations: Artistic director of a more glamorous, and queer-friendly, version of the Guthrie Theater, Cordelia is unapologetically egotistical, promiscuous, and needy. She's the finger-snap queen to Jane's solid, assimilated citizen.

"I've always thought that the two main characters in the series should be Jane and Cordelia," says Hart, "and I don't want that to change." However, this year's Lawless, Wicked Games, and its in-the-wings sequel have narrowed in on Jane and her mysterious doctor love, Julia. "I never wanted to write a romantic mystery," Hart says. "But when you have a character that you want to mature, relationships have to be part of their life." The up-and-down travails of Jane and Julia are also intertwined with Wicked Games's larger mystery, a family drama that has everything to do with the obsessive side of love and trust. The book's overall darkness may stem too from what Hart calls her "betrayal" by Seal, which decided, after 1996's Robber's Wine, to abandon its fiction line and her along with it.

"My agent had been pressing me for years to leave Seal for a mainstream press," Hart recalls, less bitter than disappointed. "I made a political decision to stay with them. Then they made a business decision to drop me. That kind of hurt. Yet I fully understand that to stay alive as a small press in this horrible book market, they had to do something. And they're still my friends.

"On the other end," she continues, "we were taking the proposal for a Jane Lawless mystery to publishers in New York. By then, I had seven books in the series. Nobody wanted to touch a series where another publisher owned the bulk of it. People would say: 'We'd like a series from Ellen. But not that one.' Bantam said: 'We've just taken on two gay writers, and if we took on Ellen, it might confuse our sales staff.'" Hart waits for my disbelieving snort. "Kinda lame. So when St. Martin's finally came through with an offer, I was enormously relieved. And I love my editor--she's done more editing than the others." Given that Sophie Greenway stands 5'1" in one book, and 5'3" in another--a small detail pointed out by a fan--Hart appreciates the extra attention.

From 1994, when Greenway debuted with This Little Piggy Went to Murder, up to last year, Hart tapped out a mystery every six months, alternating detectives. New York publishers expect a book a year in a commercial series, Hart says. And, because her books are not bestsellers, Hart has needed the income of two series to support herself: She quit her kitchen manager job at a University sorority (!) when the Ballantine contract came through. This writing race eventually wore her out, Hart confesses. She got stuck; then she got sick. The book she's just finishing took her nine months to write. And she's just now starting to feel healthy. "I would really like to have a year to write a book." Hart looks wistful. "But it's a very tough market."

 

Kathy comes in with a tea tray and a raft of different blends. Apparently, these two are tea fiends on the level of Jane Lawless, who can be counted on to brew some up whenever the plot demands reflection. I wonder vaguely if it's something in the water that has bred such a crowded pool of mystery writers in the Twin Cities. Hart can think of 20 published authors living here, and pretty soon we're tossing names at each other--"Tami Hoag!" "Chuck Logan!" "Harold Adams!" Hart has made fast friends of two, R.D. Zimmerman and M.D. Lake; the latter, a next-door neighbor, once asked Hart to read his first mystery manuscript and inadvertently exploded her idea of the possible.  

"I know of other writing communities here--I won't name names--where there is a great deal of backbiting and meanness," Hart observes carefully. "Mystery writers have been very willing to help--and pretty much live by the philosophy that 'Nobody has to fail for me to succeed.' I think mystery writers by and large don't take themselves as seriously as other writers. I like that. I don't believe in this hierarchy of books. A good book is a good book, in whatever genre." It's hardly news that the lines separating those genres have been blurring. "Characterization in modern mysteries has become so important that we've almost gone from whodunit to whydunit. And that's what I want to write about."

Hart leans forward and sips tea. "Evelyn Waugh said that the mystery is to fiction what the sonnet is to poetry. That's true, the mystery is very tight. Since Edgar Allan Poe started writing them, there has been a certain architecture. We come upon a world of chaos, and we know that by the end of the book, that chaos is going to be somehow resolved. It's almost like a fairy tale: You know you're going to start out with the monsters, but the end is going to be happy. Fairy tales have comforted children, and mysteries comfort adults.

"That said, I also think mystery is a fluid genre," Hart goes on. "It's changed since the golden age: Then you had the village--which was considered good--and an aberrant individual, who came in and created havoc. Once they got rid of that person, the village would return to goodness. After World War I, I don't think people could write that way. And today more so. Now we see society, the village, as crazy and chaotic and potentially very evil, and the bad people as a reflection of that sick society."

Hart is well aware that the modest changes she has brought to her mysteries will not impress readers seeking meatier social critiques. After all, Jane and Sophie may risk their lives for justice, but afterward they dine at pricey restaurants and sip fine champagne. "I do think that because my books are mysteries, and because they do present gays and lesbians as human beings and not as some odd subculture, that they can become bridges over which a person can walk to more complex books. I have heard from gays and lesbians who have given my books to [straight] relatives and had them open up good discussions. There isn't so much political stuff that people feel they're being hit over the head with it.


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