Hey, crime friends! Happy Pride Month! It’s been a long year, and we all deserve to enjoy ourselves this summer—happiness can itself be an act of resistance—so why not stretch out in your hammock, drink a nice cold glass of lemonade, and enjoy one of these many, many queer mysteries? This list features something for everyone, whether that be thrillers, chillers, mysteries, or historicals. There’s also plenty of cross-overs that prove genre is as much of a spectrum as gender or sexuality, and just as shaped by the battle between conventional mores and the playful subversion thereof.
There isn’t enough space in this article (or, indeed, a rather long history book) to explore the long and shameful literary history of framing gay characters as either victims or villains. Starting in the 1970s, however, queer crime writers and the small presses willing to publish them began to carve out their own space in genre fiction, and to reclaim the right to tell their own narratives.
Fast forward through several decades of marginalizing gay voices or treating gay romance as erotica, and these days, we’ve finally got mainstream publishers waking up to the fact that queer stories have a vast and growing audience, although we continue to be indebted to the outsized contributions of small presses such as Bywater Books. We’ve also seen an enormous flourishing of queer narratives in young adult fiction, paralleling the younger generation’s self-confident acceptance of their own and others’ identities. And of course, those concerned with the bleak facts of hateful violence can find crime fiction a cathartic space to confront the world in all its brutal realism. Then there are those who have turned the classic queer villain in an anti-hero to celebrate, ready to fleece the intolerant and embrace the iconoclasts surrounding. You’ll find all these narratives and more in the books listed below.
Tess Sharpe, The Girls I’ve Been
In Tess Sharpe’s new YA novel, Nora O’Malley is confident in her abilities to deceive—she is the daughter of a con artist, after all. She couldn’t be more annoyed when her ex-boyfriend walks in on her with her new girlfriend—except, perhaps, for the next day, when the three of them get trapped at a bank during a heist. Nora is pissed. She’s avoiding her feelings. And she’s about to do something very, very bad to these bank robbers.
Malindo Lo, Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Sarah Waters says about this novel that “Lo’s writing, restrained yet luscious, shimmers with the thrills of youthful desire. A lovely, memorable novel about listening to the whispers of a wayward heart and claiming a place in the world.” While Last Night at the Telegraph Club may not strictly be a crime novel, its explorations of forbidden love and Red Scare America give the book the feel of a spy novel, and the ever-present neon dovetails right into classic noir.
Russ Thomas, Firewatching
Of his debut, Russ Thomas has written, “I had a gay protagonist long before I had a detective protagonist,” and while this delayed the path to publication, because for some absurd reason publishers used to think women on wanted straight hearthrobs—I submit to you as evidence the ENTIRE world of fan fiction—by the time Thomas published Firewatching, he did so to near-universal acclaim. He also makes a compelling case here for considering the femmes fatales of noir fiction as queer icons, reminding me of the final girls of horror in their potential for radical subversion of gender conventions.
Catie Disabato, U Up?
I adored Catie Disabato’s wildly playful debut The Ghost Network, detailing a fan’s obsessive quest to locate a missing pop star named Molly Metropolis, rumored to have vanished into a lost section of the Chicago train system, and I had a lot of fun drawing the eye from the cover on a staff selection. Now, I’m close to finishing U Up?, her ice-cold sophomore novel of love and loss in LA, and I’m rather annoyed at having to stop reading it to write this blurb. In U Up?, the Very Online and very traumatized Eve can see ghosts, and one of them—her best friend, Miggy—keeps up from the other side by texting. A lot. Eve’s other best friend is missing on the anniversary of Miggy’s death, and Eve must confront her fears, her ex-girlfriends, and many, many ghosts, as she winds through the vibrant LA queer scene, refreshing her Instagram and delving deep into her soul in search of a terrible truth.
Sarah Gailey, The Echo Wife
Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife is SO GOOD. Like, I don’t know the last time I read anything this well-plotted. In The Echo Wife, a scientist renowned for her skills in cloning finds out that her husband has been cheating on her—with her clone. When the clone kills the husband, the scientist has to cover it up, or else the investigation might ruin her reputation and cause the community to question the efficacy of her research. She’s also got a certain level of sympathy for her genetic twin; her husband’s clumsy attempt to grow the perfect wife hobbled his creation and made her miserable. Innumerable plot twists ensue, leading to a perfect set-piece of an ending.
Robyn Gigl, By Way of Sorrow
Criminal defense attorney Erin McCabe gets a high-profile assignment that could throw her personal life into complete disarray in Robyn Gigl’s acclaimed new legal thriller. A young transgender sex worker is accused of murdering a senator’s son, but Erin believes her when she said it was self-defense. Unfortunately, it’s going to be harder to convince a jury, and Erin risks having her own transgender identity outed if she agrees to take on the desperate new client. A nuanced and beautiful story of standing up for what’s right, against all odds.
Wendy Heard, She’s Too Pretty to Burn
Wendy Heard writes some of the coolest thrillers around, and her first YA novel continues the trend as we follow the destructive spiral of an intense romance between a mediocre photographer and an extreme performance artist. There’s something about crime fiction that just makes performance art so much easier to understand (at least for me, anyway).
Michael Nava, Lies With Man
Michael Nava’s pioneering Henry Rios series is rightfully acclaimed, and his new installment is cause for celebration among long-term fans and newcomers alike. In 1986 Los Angeles, homophobia is an all-time high, and an ultra-conservative organization is ready to fan the flames of hatred with a ballot initiative to round up HIV positive Angelinos and put them in camps. When a member of an activist group is accused of murdering a supporter for the bill, Rios, as the group’s lawyer, soon finds more to the story than any act of protest.
A.E. Osworth, We Are Watching Eliza Bright
Like The Guild, Osworth’s new novel is entertaining for gamers and noobs alike. Programmer Eliza Bright has just been promoted at her gaming company when she begins to encounter sexism from her coworkers. After she reports the harassment, her attackers turn to their beloved gaming community for vengeance, assaulting her in-game character and doxing her in real life. But Eliza Bright has some powerful allies, and she’s not going to go down without a fight. This one kind of reads like GamerGate as told by the guy who directed The Lives of Others.
Nicolas DiDomizio, Burn It All Down
Joey Rossi and his mother Gina have always shared the same taste in terrible men, but when Joey finds out his boyfriend is cheating on him, and Gina discovers some nasty secrets her own boyfriend has been hiding, they decide they’re not going to take it anymore. Unfortunately, their revenge plan couldn’t be clumsier, and the two end up on the run, turning to the only nice guy Joey’s mother ever dated for shelter.
P.J. Vernon, Bath Haus
Bath Haus begins with a bored night in—Oliver Park is happily dating trauma surgeon Nathan, so why is he swiping through dating apps? Oliver’s boredom escalates to the point of visiting a local bathhouse hoping for a hookup, but what he gets instead is viciously attacked by a psychopathic Scandinavian. He can’t tell Nathan—it will ruin their fragile happiness, and convince Nathan that recovering addict Oliver is not to be trusted. But as Oliver makes a series of increasingly bad decisions while trying to hide the truth from Nathan, and Vernon peels back layer after layer to expose the power dynamics of their relationship, we realize that Oliver might be in more danger than even he realizes.
Nekesa Afia, Dead Dead Girls
Historical fiction is where I go to find the marginalized voices of the past recentered as folks with their own narratives and agency, and Nekesa Afia’s 1920’s-set debut does not disappoint. Louise Luna was kidnapped at age 15, becoming a local hero after managing to save herself and several others from a terrible fate. Now 26, her luster has dulled, her dancing career is over, and her attraction to another woman is a constant distraction, but when young girls start vanishing in Harlem once more, it’s up to Louise to shake off her disappointments and once again step in to save the day.
Cheryl Head, Warn Me When It’s Time
Cheryl Head’s Charlie Mack Motown series, featuring lesbian detective Mack and her eccentric assortment of helpers, is deeply rooted in her hometown of Detroit, yet universal in its appeal. Warn Me When It’s Time, the sixth in the series, continues the series’ signature blend of Motor City locales and an abiding commitment to social justice. Head’s latest has Mack and her team hired to investigate the death of an imam killed in a suspected hate crime. The victim’s children are worried the cops, blinded by anti-Muslim bias, won’t take things seriously. Charlie Mack, concerned by a string of arson attacks against mosques and Black churches, is determined to find those responsible for the imam’s death, even if she has to go up against the city’s most powerful forces.
Dharma Kelleher, TERF Wars
(Dark Pariah Press)
Aside from having one of the best titles ever, TERF Wars, Dharma Keller’s latest to feature Jinx Ballou, has the badass bounty hunter tracking down a bail-hopper guilty of the murder of a trans woman. Jinx is very good at her job, but she couldn’t have anticipated the massive media manipulation by those dead-set on keeping her from recapturing the fugitive.
Riley Sager, Survive The Night
Sager’s signature blend of campy homage and tense thrills is on full display in his new story of suspicion and doubt at 60 miles an hour. Film buff Charlie is in shock after the brutal murder of her charismatic roommate and not sure she can trust everything she sees. She’s got to get back home, but it’s the 90s, so she turns to the campus rideshare, where a clean-cut stranger offers her a ride. Charlie accepts, but immediately begins to regret her decision when she begins to suspect that the kind-hearted stranger may be the campus killer. After a game of 20 questions and a whole lot of Nirvana blaring, the action flares and you’ll find yourself racing to finish the book, just as Charlie races to get home. Oh, and in case you can’t tell already, Charlie is named for the character in Shadow of a Doubt. So, bonus recommendation just for that.
Amanda Kabak, Upended
(Brain Mill Press)
This is this queer reimagining of that really annoying Nicholas Cage movie (The Family Man) that I never dared to hope for, and yet it exists! Upended isn’t exactly a classic crime novel, but Kabak’s imaginative narrative does feature a crime as a catalyst. Protagonist Maddie thinks she’s got a pretty good life: her business is running smoothly, her brother is (slowly) maturing, and she hardly ever things about her ex anymore. But when she awakes in the hospital after a mysterious attack, she finds everything in her life has been, well, upended.
Ann Aptaker, Murder and Gold
Ann Aptaker’s series featuring the “dapper dyke-about-town and art smuggler” Cantor Gold is one of the best kept secrets of queer fiction today, or at least, I decided to use that as an excuse for why it took me four installments to cotton onto the its stylish excellence. In Aptaker’s latest, Cantor Gold finds herself framed by her cop nemesis for the deaths of two women: one an ex-hook up, and the other a patron of her stolen art business. But Cantor’s never let persecution by authority figures take her down before, and she’s ready to use all her underworld connections to discover the true culprit.
Lyndsay Faye, The King of Infinite Space
Lyndsay Faye won our hearts with her re-imagining of Jane Eyre, Jane Steele, which begins with the immortal line, “Reader, I murdered him.” Now she’s turned her eye towards Hamlet, crafting a queer and feminist take on Shakespeare’s tale of toxic masculinity, in which Hamlet has complicated feelings for Horatio, and Ophelia may just make it through alive.
Timothy Schaffert, The Perfume Thief
This is the queer spy novel about WWII Paris that I never knew I needed and now could not possibly consider living without. Clementine, or Clem, a septuagenarian perfume artist dressed impeccably in men’s clothes, is sent on a mission by her songbird client to retrieve a book of perfume recipes key to reuniting the chanteuse with her parfumier father, in hiding from the Nazis. Elegant and elegiac, a paean to the Old Paris, or perhaps a Paris That Never Was, The Perfume Thief is perfectly pitched by the publisher as “A Gentleman in Moscow meets Moulin Rouge.”
Lee Mandelo, Summer Sons
In what is perfectly described a “sweltering, queer Southern Gothic,” Andrew heads to Nashville to search for answers after Eddie, his adopted brother and wealthy benefactor, is found dead of a suspected suicide. Eddie had been deeply immersed in studying the supernatural, and now Andrew must confront his own fraught relationship with ghostly specters or risk leaving his companion’s spirit restless.
Aden Polydoros, The City Beautiful
In 1893 Chicago, the gleaming wonder of the World’s Fair stands in stark contrast to the hard-scrabble lives of impoverished immigrants and the blood-soaked stench of the stockyards. Jewish boys are disappearing from Maxwell Street, and the police aren’t interested in looking for them. For Alter Rosen, a young typesetter trying to earn his family’s passage from Romania, the crimes seem like a chance to finally start reporting for the paper. But when his beloved roommate is found murdered, and he finds himself possessed by the dead boy’s dybbuk, he must hunt down the killer or see his own soul destroyed.
James Han Mattson, Reprieve
(William Morrow and Custom House)
It’s hard to do justice to how awesome this book is without giving much away, so I’ll just tell you the set-up: in the mid-90s, in a small university town in the middle of nowhere, there is a haunted house. Not just any haunted house, but a full-contact mansion of horrors, where the well-heeled cliental can go in smiling and emerge screaming, and a few daring souls each year attempt to win a cash prize by completing an exceptionally disturbing challenge. Reprieve is a self-aware and furious deconstruction of the horror novel, contrasting those who seek out fear with those who face the ever-present dangers of prejudice.
Cassandra Khaw, Nothing But Blackened Teeth
Is it just me, or is there an incredible revival of the haunted house narrative happening? Cassandra Khaw’s debut novella, Hammers on Bone, established them as a name to watch in fantastical horror. In their suitably-terrifyingly titled Nothing But Blackened Teeth, coming out this October, a Japanese mansion built on the bones of the sacrificed is the venue for a wedding celebration with a rising body count.
John Copenhaver, The Savage Kind
The Savage Kind brings a new meaning to “Be gay. Do crime.” Two lonely teenage girls in 1940s D.C. meet in a lecture class, forge an intense connection over a shared love of detective fiction, and soon turn to committing crimes themselves to get their kicks. When dead bodies start piling up around them, they decide to investigate—and perhaps, take their own revenge.