The Return of Kate Delafield
Author: Victoria Brownworth
March 19, 2014
Some old friends you only see occasionally, but when you do, you realize how much you have missed them. I feel that way about Kate Delafield. It’s been years since I’ve seen her (eight, to be exact), but when I ran into her again in Katherine Forrest’s new novel, High Desert, I was very glad to see her.
Katherine Forrest is one of our iconic lesbian mystery novelists and Kate Delafield was our first out lesbian detective.
With nearly a decade since Forrest’s last foray into the seamy world of the LAPD, it may have seemed as if we wouldn’t see Delafield again.
But–she’s back. Not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with a full-throated cry of foul at the various hands she’s been dealt since we saw her last.
High Desert, the ninth in Forrest’s Delafield series, opens anomalously, sans crime. The detective is re-arranging herself in her own living room as she awaits a visit from her former lieutenant, now a captain, Carolina Walcott. The smooth, tough, driven, no-nonsense African-American Walcott is
visiting a subordinate for a very specific reason:
She needs Kate’s help finding Kate’s former partner, Joe Cameron.
There’s no crime. Well, no new crime. There is, however, the ghost of an old case, one of those cases that breaks a detective. That case–Tamara Carter’s murder–has haunted Joe and by extension, Kate.
Captain Walcott needs to find Joe, who’s disappeared while on a leave of absence, and fast. Kate is now forcibly retired and she has issues. Her longtime partner, Aimee, has left her. Again. Alcohol has become her best friend. Another actual best friend, Maggie Schaeffer, owner of the Nightwood Bar that was the scene of one of Kate’s early cases, is dying of lung cancer in hospice care. And now the remnants of Kate’s life are all around her in an ugly, untidy, possibly unfixable mess.
Walcott’s visit is unsettling in the extreme because it rips right through Kate’s thin veneer (more like mask) of complacent retirement. After a quarter century on the job, the 60-something Kate is at a loss. Every time she thinks about what she should do next, the most obvious answer lies in a nearby bottle, of which she has many.
Walcott suggests therapy with Calla Dearborn, who may or may not be Walcott’s lover.
Like every loner addict, Kate is infuriated by the suggestion that she needs help. After all, she’s the one who has helped others all along. She wants to shove Walcott out the door, but the tantalizing lifeline that Walcott has tossed her can’t be ignored. She takes Dearborn’s card. And agrees to help Walcott find Cameron.
High Desert is proof there is life in the old gal yet–both Forrest, who is hitting 75 next month–and Delafield, who remains the complex and engaging character she always was.
This is solid detective fiction of the page-turning sort. If the early chapters feel too caught up in Kate’s personal turmoil, that’s essential to what comes next. As Kate takes on Walcott’s mission, we see how her detective skills have not diminished one iota.
She’s as keen as ever, even as she struggles with her very real demons.
Forrest skillfully layers the crime plot involving Joe Cameron and his very complicated family life with those demons Kate is battling. She drinks herself into a stupor and then wakes herself up with coffee and aspirin. Yet even with the shakes, Kate is twice the detective many of the men around her are. She’s never stopped being able to think on her feet while on a case. It’s in her personal life that she seems incapable of using those incisive tools.
I don’t want to give away too much of either plot–finding Cameron or Kate finding herself–but one of the things Forrest does in High Desert is address the unsettling facts of mortality ad aging.
Kate Delafield is no stranger to death. Kate debuted 30 years ago in Amateur City and that was when we discovered she had lost her lover to a horrifying death. Maggie Schaeffer has been Kate’s friend since Forrest’s second Delafield novel, Murder at the Nightwood Bar. More than a quarter-century in both real-time and Kate’s time. And now she wants Kate to help her die–something that grinds at Kate’s guts and eats through to her moral core.
In High Desert Kate, married to the job for decades even when partnered, is foundering because she is surrounded by loss, by death, by the never-ending-destruction wrought by other people’s demons. There are scenes in the hospice with both Maggie and several other women that provide an unsettling peek into aging, dying and regret. These are as blood-chilling as any of the life-threatening moments that occur in the high desert of the title.
We have few novels that address the issues lesbians face as they age–or in Kate’s circumstances, age-out of their careers. Forrest–clearly in no danger of aging out of her own–has presented a compelling and affecting portrayal of what happens when the center does not hold and a solitary lesbian is thrust into the unknown landscape of life on the other side of middle age as those closest to her disappear and die off. Where does that leave her? How does she re-frame her life–what’s left of it?
High Desert delves deep, proving yet again that so-called genre writing takes the reader to all the same places as literary fiction and then some. Forrest may have been away for eight years, but it is as if she–and Kate Delafield–never left. Which is as it should be.
High Desert may be Forrest’s latest Delafield (and it is to be hoped, not her last), but Bella Books and Spinsters Ink have reprinted several of Forrest’s other Delafields, all of which are worth re-reading.
One of the deft elements of High Desert is Forrest revisiting scenes from Kate’s previous cases, like Murder at the Nightwood Bar. What detective wouldn’t be reliving past glories–or past losses–while examining her career in retrospect? When Kate does this, it reminds readers of the series just how much Kate has lived through, while new readers coming to High Desert as a stand-alone are given insights into the series as a whole and Kate as a character through those tidbits.
It’s easy to forget with the breadth of lesbian mysteries from a plethora of presses and with new doyennes of the genre like J. M. Redmann, Ellen Hart and Val McDermid, among others that Forrest was there first and she’s still there. What’s more, Forrest’s crime novels, like those of her friend and colleague Michael Nava, chart a specific time and place in LGBT life.
The Beverly Malibu, third in the Kate Delafield series, was first published in 1989 by Naiad Press and is now re-released by Bella Books. I was in Los Angeles myself working on a non-fiction crime book at the time this novel was released, staying on Sunset Boulevard in a forties-style, noirish hotel suite with a cabbage roses rug and a small eat-in kitchen with white appliances straight out of Chinatown. I remember reading Forrest’s novel on Thanksgiving Day after having had dinner alone at a local restaurant and thinking I was in the perfect setting for her murder mystery.
Delafield and her partner, the cantankerous misogynist and homophobe, Ed Taylor, are called to the scene of a murder that is as staged and dramatic as a film set. The victim, Owen Sinclair, was a former informant to the House Un-American Activities Committee. There are myriad people who would have wanted him dead, but seemingly none who would mourn his passing.
Sinclair “died real hard,” as the cop informing Delafield tells her. Kate had been having dinner with Maggie Schaeffer of Nightwood Bar fame and they and some other women were headed to the bar after dinner when Kate gets the murder call.
At 73, Sinclair had an ex-wife, kids, a former mistress, Maxine Marlowe, and a plethora of enemies. Among these was Dudley Kincaid–Sinclair had stolen his screenplay, something that happened more pre-Internet than now. There’s also Hazel Turner. Her husband, Jerome, was one of Sinclair’s victims. And then there are the other denizens of The Beverly Malibu who had their own reasons for hating Sinclair.
The murder scene is grisly: Sinclair, wearing only his boxers, handcuffed to the bed. His fingers are caked in blood from clawing at his own stomach. His body is in a rictus of excruciating pain, his eyes bloody pools.
The clues are many, but none seem to hold the answers Kate needs. Wagner was the appropriate send-off for Sinclair’s trip to Valhalla, but the murder was not some impromptu S/M sex play gone wrong as Taylor suggests. Sinclair’s bourbon is laced with arsenic.
Someone wanted him dead, and wanted it to be as painful as possible.
The Beverly Malibu takes Kate and the reader into a dark time in Hollywood–and American–history, the period of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt and the blacklisting of writers who were alleged communist sympathizers from Hollywood.
This novel, which also won the Lambda Literary Award, also introduces Kate to Aimee Grant, the woman who will become her partner off and on for the remainder of the Delafield series.
Murder by Tradition was reprinted by Spinsters Ink in December. Reading it now, more than 20 years since it was first published by Naiad Press in 1991, the fourth in the Delafield series, it absolutely stands as a testament to the harsh world those of us who came of age post-Stonewall–but not that much post-Stonewall–faced. More than anything this is a novel of its time: when AIDS was in full rampage, the first George Bush was in office and the closet was still the place where most lesbians and gay men lived their lives in fear.
Teddie Crawford was found dead–butchered, really–in a restaurant kitchen. Multiple stab wounds suggest the kind of overkill that is personal. And rage-fueled.
The suspect gives a queer-fear/gay panic defense. Crawford made unwanted sexual advances and when he was refused, held a knife on the suspect who in turn was impelled to stab Crawford to death to save his own life.
Kate doesn’t believe Crawford made these moves at all. She doesn’t think this was a self-defense murder nor was it impromptu. She thinks it was premeditated, first-degree murder. She just can’t prove it. She has nothing to bolster her case–and an A.D.A. who has never tried a homicide before.
Murder by Tradition is a trip back in time. Not like The Beverly Malibu, to the 1950s, but to our own no-so-distant LGBT past when the closet still reigned and gay men and lesbians were under constant threat of harassment and blackmail, gay-bashings and other violence. The word “outing” wasn’t common parlance yet, but ordinary lesbians and gay men were being outed all the time–and left without families, homes, jobs, lives as a consequence.
It’s not just Teddie Crawford whose life was about to be exposed–and was, after his murder. It’s Kate’s own life. There were no out cops in 1991. And Kate’s not about to be the test case. But a key figure in the trial could be the one to expose Kate’s lesbianism, wrenching her from the closet she’s so carefully constructed and pulling Aimee out with her.
Murder by Tradition is, in many respects, an historical novel, now. It tells with gritty, unnerving accuracy and incisive acuity what it was like to live in the shadows, even as AIDS activism was bringing gays and lesbians into the streets because of the epidemic. The closet is as much Crawford’s killer as is the actual murderer.
Like The Beverly Malibu, Murder by Tradition was also a Lambda Literary Award winner.
These three novels are powerful and compelling. They give us Kate Delafield, lesbian police detective, at different stages of her life–the beginning of her police career and the end. They also illumine what it means to be a lesbian without children and with few friends in a milieu that is harshly unaccepting, even now, of lesbians, coupled or uncoupled, white or black. Forrest keeps her crime plots going, but politics–the political as personal–is never far away from the story.
Read individually or in the order of their writing, The Beverly Malibu, Murder by Tradition and High Desert all bring Kate Delafield vividly to life–a character who at each point in her development has resonated, and who will continue to do so as long as Forrest imbues her with the emotions and politics of the here and now and writes her as a real-life lesbian trying to carve a place for herself in this most heterosexual of worlds.