DECEMBER 30, 2014
“I’D … USED the blackmailed-for-being-homosexual, and except in the case of politicians and public figures, that motive had pretty much rusted to a standstill,” Christopher Holmes admits in Josh Lanyon’s first Holmes and Moriarity mystery, Somebody Killed His Editor (2009). Holmes is gay himself, and a writer. As the creator of the Miss Butterwith series of cozy mysteries, he knows that the closet no longer works as an impetus to murder. The closet, except in very particular circumstances, has been emptied by the progress of gay rights. The same process that has made it possible for Lanyon to write a successful mainstream gay detective series has made it impossible (or at least implausible) for his character Holmes to posit outing as a plausible motive.
And yet, at the same time, the cozy detective novels — novels typically set in small towns with amateur sleuths — parallel the workings of the closet. In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick argues that the “density of … social meaning” around the closet lends “any speech act” in the vicinity of the “exaggerated propulsiveness of wearing flippers in a swimming pool.” Secrets, the effort to discover secrets, the signaling that there are secrets, the knowledge that some people know the secret and some people don’t — it gives every utterance a rushing thrust and a forbidden twist, so that even “rushing thrust” and “forbidden twist” mean more than they mean, implicating writer and reader in certain kinds of knowledge or certain kinds of innocence. And it’s that very propulsive flipperiness that powers the cozy detective novel. Who done it, how they did it, the constant circling around a primal scene of criminality and deviance dressed up in drawing room respectability — that’s the closet and the cozy. You could even say that the secret of the cozy is the closet and, perhaps, that the secret of the closet is the cozy.
Christopher Holmes himself, that detective who is not the detective you expect, is out of the closet — and yet still often in its shadow, both actually and metaphorically. In the first novel of the series, Holmes’s love interest, J.X. Moriarity, is widely presumed to be straight because he’s married. Holmes knows he isn’t, since they had a fling years back — and also (detection!) because Holmes notices Moriarity isn’t wearing a ring. As Holmes muses to himself (significant ellipses in the original), “I’m a mystery writer and we … notice things.” The mystery of Moriarity parallels the mystery of the body Holmes stumbles upon (fairly literally) on his way to the writers’ retreat in Somebody Killed His Editor. Gay romance and gay detection are both a matter of observation, of collation, of noticing the clue in plain sight that reveals the secret within. Holmes’s agent, Rachel, is convinced that Moriarity is straight; Holmes sees her as “one of the fairies gifting Sleeping Beauty’s christening: Beauty. Intelligence. Heterosexual.” We later learn that Rachel is herself bisexual; in comparing her to the fairies, Holmes inadvertently broadcasts her secret as well. The fairy of heterosexuality is, inevitably, not heterosexual — to not see into the closet is as telling as to detect.
The mention of “fairies” is a textual clue, not a narrative one; it asks the reader to play detective, to see what’s there, or perhaps, what isn’t. As a reader, you can’t tell whether Josh Lanyon intends to use “fairies” to point to Rachel’s queerness, just as Holmes can’t tell for sure whether Moriarity’s absence of a ring is meaningful. The cozy (and the romance too) puts the reader in the place of the detective, trying to determine the truth about the characters — and the truth about the author.
The Holmes and Moriarity series couldn’t be much more self-conscious about the tangled knots of secrets and knowledge uniting author, writer, character, and readers. The title of the series is a joke on reader expectations. Holmes is not that Holmes — but at the same time, the Holmes and Moriarity we get could be read as a wink at the not-very-buried super-detective/super-villain slash potential in Conan Doyle’s famous stories.
Moreover, Holmes is a creator of detectives who himself stumbles into detection, begging the question of the extent to which his heroine, Miss Butterwith (and her cat, Mr. Pinkerton), is supposed to be an analogue for our gay detective hero. Is Holmes’s inner truth, or secret identity, an elderly lady with a cat? To some degree, the answer appears to be yes. The writer Holmes is in fact his own cozy — he’s reticent, he hates socializing or going to conferences, and he characterizes himself in the second book of the series, All She Wrote, as a “crotchety reclusive has-been,” as if Miss Butterwith is lending the middle-aged Holmes her white hairs. Throughout the series, Holmes vociferously resists efforts by his agent to get him to update his style, or try to follow the latest trends. When Rachel tells him he should write brutal Scandinavian noir “stripped of all unnecessary words,” Holmes is incredulous. “Say what? Rachel had gone mad. I was all about the unnecessary words.”
That passage, from the third and last volume in the series, The Boy With the Painful Tattoo, seems like a nod to Josh Lanyon’s own prose style, which is more in line with Oscar Wilde’s gift of gab than Hammett’s hard-boiled taciturnity. But the quip is also a plain statement of fact. Holmes is “about the unnecessary words” in the sense that he is “unnecessary words” — the main way in which he’s like Miss Butterwith is that they’re both characters in a book. One of the funniest moments in the series is when Holmes desperately tries to point out to one of his admirers that writing a detective novel doesn’t make him a detective: “Ingrid, listen to me. I write mysteries about an elderly lady botanist and her cat. Half the time, the cat solves the crime. Do you understand what I’m trying to say here? I don’t have any real experience with investigating crimes or the criminal justice system.”
Miss Butterwith is fake, her mysteries aren’t real — but Holmes’s mysteries aren’t real either. The kitty Mr. Pinkerton’s crime-solving propensities are improbable, but then, Holmes’s habit of tripping over dead bodies à la Jessica Fletcher is not exactly realistic either. The truth is that there is no truth; the secret, whether written by Lanyon or Holmes, is that there is no secret. There is only fiction.
Or maybe fictions. Holmes, after all, exists outside the novel, as do Lilian Jackson Braun’s massively successful Cat Who books. Josh Lanyon exists too — a reclusive mystery writer, like his protagonist. In fact, Lanyon is so reclusive that many fans are uncertain about his gender. The m/m mystery genre is often written by, and read by, women; there is speculation, therefore, that Lanyon is himself in the closet. Rather than a gay man writing about a gay male detective writing about a female detective, Lanyon could be a woman (gay or otherwise) writing about a gay male detective writing about a woman. The fictions and secrets in the novel are therefore part of a real secret, and some readers read the book for clues to a real identity. Similarly, many readers of Holmes’s Miss Butterwith and the Kernel of Truth read that (fake) novel and determine that one of the characters, the intrepid inspector Appleby, is gay. Holmes, though, insists Appleby is straight: “I invented him. I get to say whether he’s gay or not.” But of course Holmes didn’t invent him; “Lanyon” did. And who gets to say whether that pseudonym Lanyon is a gay man — “Lanyon” or the readers of “Lanyon”? A created self nests inside of a created self, and it’s the joy of the mystery reader to reveal each and every one — or at least, to think he or she has uncovered them all.
Sedgwick argues that all fiction is constructed around the closet, that novels are predicated on an “inexplicit compact by which novel-readers voluntarily plunge into worlds that strip them, however temporarily, of the painfully acquired cognitive maps of their ordinary lives.” In return for giving up their knowledge of this world, she says, the reader gets “an invisibility that promises cognitive exemption and eventual privilege.” To read, for Sedgwick, is a kind of Faustian bargain, in which you give up your knowledge of the world in exchange for privileged access to a different world. You give over power to Jane Austen, and Jane Austen in turn lets you know everything there is to know about the wants of (ahem) single men. All fiction becomes a power fantasy, a voyeuristic dream of seeing what’s in every closet.
Writing during the AIDS crisis, at a time of ongoing social stigma, Sedgwick’s outlook was bleak. With the taboos around homosexuality loosening, at least to some degree, Lanyon seems to feel freer both to provide explicit depictions of gay sex, and to see the closet in terms that aren’t quite as grim. The Holmes and Moriarity mysteries ask you to suspend knowledge of reality to gain knowledge of fiction — but they also ask you to enjoy the way that the real is fiction and the fiction is real. The pleasure seems as much about letting go of power as about seizing hold of it. “You can’t control everything all the time, It isn’t healthy to try,” Moriarity tells control-freak Holmes in the bedroom. The series hits the genre tropes, allowing you to come along as Holmes looks into the closet — but it also reminds you that the those looks and that closet aren’t real true levers of power, but fictions. The murders aren’t real. By drawing open parallels between the secret of murder and the secret of homosexuality, the Holmes books celebrate, or hope for, a world in which the closet does not contain violence — a cozy utopia where solving a mystery entails pleasure without bloodshed.