Why crime pays for LGBT+ characters

by Mari Hannah | Author
Wednesday, 6 March 2019 09:00 GMT

The launch party of the 2018 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival Programming Committee (l-r: Val McDermid, Mari Hannah, Lee Child, Steve Mosby, Jane Gregory and NJ Cooper). The Hospital Club, Covent Garden, April 19 2018. Credit: Mike Whorley Photography

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Writing a gay lead character in a crime novel meant waiting longer for success

Mari Hannah is a writer, reader-in-residence and programming chair of the 2019 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival @mariwriter

As an aspiring crime writer, I had a dream to explore the world through the eyes of my fictional protagonist, DCI Kate Daniels, who happened to be keeping quiet about her sexuality. She was based loosely on my detective partner and her experiences in the police, a clever, hardworking copper; a detective inspector in a real murder investigation team.

Conscious that LGBT+ characters were under-represented in the arts, I wanted to do my bit to change that, to celebrate my own identity, to write crime with a gay lead character who people would grow to love and who might change attitudes. It never occurred to me that, in creating a lesbian detective, I’d wait longer than most to realise any level of success in the UK or abroad.

It’s hard for any writer to get a foot on the publishing ladder, but in my case it was doubly difficult to break though. There is a gender bias in publishing, which can be off-putting to emerging female writers without adding another layer of difficulty to the equation. Nevertheless, I persisted in my quest. If anything, the barriers that discouraged me, made me all the more determined to break them down.   

Diverse storytelling and inclusivity should be at the very heart of publishing. A decade ago it wasn’t. When I was submitting my manuscript, I was met with rejection, time and again; unable to attract a literary agent or publisher, despite the quality of my work. Pitching a crime series with an LGBT+ character at its core was seen by many as professional suicide, a commercial risk.

Gay or straight, it’s easier for commissioning editors to say no rather than yes, but when a writer faces a brick wall, what are they supposed to do? Dig deep and keep pushing is the answer. Writers have a responsibility to inform, so if we have something to say about the world in which we live – a world in which LGBT+ relationships are still illegal in many countries – we crack on. 

No matter how long I had to wait, I wasn’t prepared to shelve my manuscript and write something that might attract that all-important first contract. I believed in my material and stuck with it. “The Murder Wall”, my debut, won the Polari First Book Prize; its follow-up a Northern Writers’ Award; and the series as a whole a Crime Writers’ Association Dagger in the Library 2017. It was optioned for TV and is now in development with British actor and television presenter Stephen Fry’s production company, Sprout Pictures. 

A television presenter asked me recently if I’d ever been tempted to compromise my lead character by changing her sexuality when I was chasing a deal. The answer was an emphatic no, though of course I could’ve taken the easy route to publication. Kate was too good a character to demote to a secondary role. Her struggle to reach the top in her chosen profession matched my own. She was me, as I was her.

We’ve come a long way since the ground-breaking writers who struggled to get their work in print, those who inspired me to keep pushing against a closed door.

Events like the Polari Literary Salon held monthly at the Southbank Centre, London – conceived by author, journalist and gay rights activist, Paul Burston – affords LGBT+ writers a voice and a stage on which to perform. It also tours nationally, the Polari First Book Prize attracting an increasing number of mainstream publisher submissions, year on year.

The fictional landscape is changing. LGBT+ writers and characters are emerging. Progress is slow, but that door is ajar. You just have to walk through it.