Be Gay Do Crimes: The mystery story model of implicit queer storytelling
A thought experiment: You’ve taken a mystery novel out of the library, and you’re almost at the end. As you curl up with a nice cup of tea and prepare to read the last chapter, your mind is whirring with theories and questions — you’re pretty sure you’re supposed to think it was the butler, but something about that just doesn’t add up, and why would the author even mention that the archduke had a purple polkadot umbrella too if it wasn’t going to end up being relevant?? You turn the page, breath held in anticipation….. Only to find that some asshole who borrowed the book before you ripped out the ending. Wtf.
(Author’s note: Thought experiment for illustrative purposes only, not an indictment of libraries, support your local library everyone!)
So who did it? You’re grumpy that the last page is missing but you feel sure it would just have confirmed your theory that it was the sexy umbrella salesman, who was obviously trying to frame the archduke to cover up her affair with the maid, it all adds up, that’s the only answer that would explain both the polkadots and the fact that the maid lied about the market price of salmon. You’re sure of it. You flip back and re-read a couple of key sections to make sure you’re not forgetting anything. Now that your theory of the crime has clicked into place details from the first few chapters that you missed the first time jump out at you. Of course, that’s why the author mentioned the maid’s favorite color. That’s why there were wet footprints in the kitchen. Honestly in retrospect it’s embarrassingly obvious. It all makes so much sense now.
I’m not here to re-litigate the entire Death of the Author concept. But I am here to talk about interpreting and discussing queer fiction, and it is a fact of the shitty world we live in that for one reason or another, queer fiction is often very similar to a mystery story with the last page ripped out. The reason might be direct cut-and-dry censorship, or the more insidious forces of cultural norms, or the author’s desire not to have their work pigeonholed, or the author’s own internal doubts and conflicts, or a belief that more subtly told stories are more powerful, etc. etc. etc. The result is that if you’re interested in queerness in media, you’re very often dealing with works that are lacking that section in the back that you can turn to where Encyclopedia Brown explains exactly how all the clues fit together for you. That can be frustrating, especially if you’re arguing with your friend who’s sure the butler did it and you can’t just point to the umbrella salesman’s confession. Instead you have to build your case from the ground up, explain the details that are out of place otherwise, explain how you can tell the butler is a red herring, explain where your gut instinct that the maid is an unreliable narrator comes from. And even if you’re sure your case is brilliantly argued and thorough and covers all the bases, the most skeptical of friends can still tell you that you don’t know for sure and there’s nothing more you can do to make them see what you see.
This is my guiding philosophy when thinking about intentionality in fiction: Assume the existence of intention. Assume that each detail, each choice, each omission, each word, each moment is intentionally filling in a consistent underlying reality. Assume that you can trust those details even without a cheat sheet giving you all the answers about the reality being built. Assuming the existence of intentionality is not the same as assigning any particular content to that intention: Do not assume, for example, that the writers of a given story are straight and believe in the superiority of a cisheteronormative world order unless that’s what the texture of the story communicates to you. Don’t assume that just because the mystery story includes a butler he must have been the culprit unless the clues actually point to it. The lack of a climactic reveal doesn’t negate the concept of analysis, of building a theory, of mapping your theory onto the details you have, of looking for that feeling of everything clicking into place.
But what if you — gasp! — get it wrong? What if you do your best to understand the sum of all the details and nuances and implications and red herrings and then an omniscient being appears before you and tells you that actually the author only included the polkadot umbrella detail because her daughter’s obsessed with polkadots and she intended the butler to be guilty the whole time? Well…hmm how do I put this bluntly enough…who the hell cares? Of course you risk being occasionally “wrong” any time you set out to analyze something complicated; all you can do is tie your analysis as closely as possible to the details of the text. The fact that analysis is imperfect, and that omniscient beings are not actually going to grade your work and tell you if you got it “right,” doesn’t negate the entire concept of textual analysis. And in the particular case of queer media, there are so many examples of works that are deeply, resonantly queer whose creators had to publicly tiptoe around or outright deny that fact for a long time. As for examples of works where viewing the texture of the story through a queer lens makes all the choices fall into place but only by some odd set of coincidences……well let’s be real there are no such examples. But even if there were, I repeat: Who cares? The whole endeavor of discussing queer narrative becomes deeply impoverished when we’re so terrified of the horrible fate of an occasional false positive that the only kind of analysis we accept is pointing at the dramatic reveal on the last page.
Examples of applying this philosophy are better suited to a whole article (or series of articles, or ludicrously detailed book-length episode-by-episode analysis…) than to a paragraph or two. But once you know what you’re looking for, you can’t take a step in the landscape of queer fiction without bumping into deliberately vague allusions, elided details, character arcs that only cohere if you recognize them as romantic. Any time a story that’s otherwise tightly woven points a big red arrow at something it’s not telling you, pay attention.
This highlighting of narrative layers that are left to the audience to uncover takes many possible forms. In the masterpiece gay space opera Legend of the Galactic Heroes, the whole story is framed as a history, which introduces a dimension of unreliable narration and historical erasure: Here Julian, in the act of recording his thoughts on another character’s motivations for posterity, “makes a point” of not writing down “the truth beyond the logical explanation.” Why? What was that truth that he saw? What stopped him from expressing it in writing? What’s stopping the story’s narrator from explaining it to us now? Why does this scene exist in the show just to paint a big question mark over “the truth” of this plot arc?
This scene in isolation doesn’t pinpoint a queer love story as the answer to the questions it raises. But it explicitly calls into question the “logical explanation” that might be offered by other characters and pushes the viewers to look beyond that surface for motivations that might go unspoken. It’s up to us then to put the pieces together and observe the (in this particular example, extremely gay and extremely unsubtle — watch the show!) picture that emerges.
Blatant censorship can (sadly) give us even more on-the-nose examples of what it looks like when the last page of the mystery is ripped out, by just…actually ripping it out right in front of our face. I implore you to take seven minutes right now — literally right now, just go do it, you have the time — and watch this beautiful self-contained love story from the Chinese donghua Beryl & Sapphire. And when you’ve done that (and taken a moment to finish crying), watch the “survival edition,” which is exactly the same story with about thirty seconds edited out to preserve so-thin-it-barely-exists plausible deniability of the story being a gay romance. The side-by-side comparison reads like a parody: In the survival edition, we see Sapphire blushingly handing Beryl a note on the school roof only to be scoffed at, we just don’t see what it says. We see Sapphire’s parents telling him that his relationship with Beryl brings them shame, but they don’t use the words “break up”; we see (you really can’t make this shit up) the two of them cuddling in the movie theater from the back but not from the front.
The censored version of this story is not intrinsically less queer just because the most blatant edges have been sanded off. We might not get to peer over Beryl’s shoulder and read the love letter he’s holding, but nothing about Sapphire’s blushing stammer is ambiguous. We have enough cultural context to figure out why Sapphire’s parents would feel shame. For goodness sake we can see Sapphire resting his head intimately on Beryl’s shoulder even from the back. This episode provides a perfect Rosetta stone for interpretation of implicit queer storytelling since it actually does come complete with answer key, but of course we don’t usually have that luxury. Elizabeth Simins’s brilliant article about the parallels between two shows with the same director applies this sort of Rosetta stone analysis across works — the more “explicitly” queer Devilman Crybaby serves as a translation key for the same narrative beats presented more implicitly in Ping Pong. In many cases the translation key comes only from a general understanding of narrative structures and the ability to fill in missing information, to know when a story is purposefully inviting you to read between its lines. The more you approach fiction with the assumption that there is an answer, there is intention behind every detail, the more you’ll find yourself piecing together the truth.
It’s easy to bemoan the need for this kind of detective work. In an ideal world, wouldn’t we just get the satisfying catharsis of confession on the last page? The answer, in my opinion, is yes……but. The beautiful thing about a well-crafted mystery is that the final reveal isn’t really necessary — the truth is woven into the fabric of every detail of the story, so that the best part of the big reveal isn’t that it’s shocking but that at some level it had to be the answer all along. When a story truly centers queerness and imbues all of its worldbuilding with a queer sensibility, then the catharsis of out-loud affirmation can be incredible. But there is a danger in “explicit representation” — when it’s possible for the queer rep checkbox to be ticked with an explicit label, it becomes much easier for that queerness to be something dabbed onto the exterior of a story as a decorative afterthought rather than woven deeply into the narrative structure. As frustrating and harmful as censorship is, having to work a bit to uncover the queer resonance of a story reassures me that the clues I’m picking up on were placed with consistency and intention. I feel more trust in a story that knows how to communicate to me through metaphor and subtext than one that labels itself as queer but might mean something much more superficial by that. Without honing our queer narrative detective skills, we risk contributing to the erasure of queerness from our cultures by failing to see and validate all of the amazing queer art that finds its way around and under and through the censorship. They can rip out the last page, but they cannot stop our stories from being told, and they can’t stop them from being heard.