High Desert is the ninth in the Kate Delafield detective seriesand once again plunges us into a combination of crime and personal crisis. Nearly ten years after the last instalment Kate has retired and now faces an empty world without ‘the job’ which has filled her world for 25 years and the love of her despairing partner, Aimee. She even has to cope with the imminent prospect of losing her best friend, Maggie Schaeffer.
Kate has always struggled with her own demons, and in this book they provide the biggest battle. She can still front aggressive bikers, sweet-talk nutty neighbours, out-think pyromaniac murderers and out-run a ring of fire. But she has yet to deal with her own internal issues.
The plot finds Kate helping her old lieutenant, now Captain Walcott, who is concerned that Kate’s ex-partner has vanished while on enforced leave. Kate soon discovers that he has disappeared on purpose and carefully covered his traces. As her off-the-record investigations develop she tracks down his sister and finds the reason for both his long-term reticence to share his family background and his current precarious hideout, where he is waiting for his vengeful brother to appear.
Of much more importance to long-term Detective Delafield fans are the personal stories threaded around and through the ‘detective’ novel. First Maggie Schaeffer, owner of the Nightwood Bar and Kate’s closest friend, confidante and rock, is dying of lung cancer in a hospice, and pleading with Kate to help her end her life with dignity. Second, Kate’s forced retirement has left not just a void, but a vacuum in her life. She was ‘the job’ and without it she is lost. But even more than that, the horrors of a life filled with death can no longer be buried by the next case and the next crisis, and so they come back to haunt Kate in blood-drenched dreams.
Kate’s reaction to a lifetime of loss, a lifetime of suppressing her feelings and protecting those around her, both physically and emotionally, is to drink until she can no longer feel. And so the adorable and long-suffering Aimee, on-again, off-again partner of 19 years, has gone as well – relegated to a cold and empty rented cottage, living out of boxes and reading magazines while she waits for Kate to sort out her life.
For those who just read this book as a one-off crime novel this may all come as a revelation. But for those of us who have been reading Forrest’s books for 30 years, Kate and Aimee, Maggie, Joe and all the rest are old friends. They have lives and histories and have been part of our psyche since the first novel, Amateur City, was published in 1984. Revisiting their lives, remembering the earlier stories and re-engaging with them 10 years on is like going to a school reunion with a bunch of people you had forgotten, but never stopped loving.
Forrest’s brilliance is in the depth of her characters and the honesty and integrity of her story lines. Both her main players and the minor characters are very real. Kate has always touched the lives of many during her investigations; indeed, it is her interactions with the people she meets which make her more than just a detective – from women at the Nightwood Bar who became her family to the Hollywood has-beens of the Beverly Malibu. High Desert reminds us of them and introduces new faces. The lightest of touches brings back Patton and her yachting cap, Taylor’s retirement to grow avocados in Fallbrook, Tori and the friendly fire.
We have a myriad of lesbian crime and lesbian romance novels these days, in no small part thanks to the pioneering work and leadership of Forrest herself. What sets the Kate Delafield novels apart is that they are painful for their characters, they are not easy rollercoasters to follow and they don’t have happy emotional endings. The characters have matured as the series has progressed, as have we, the readers. The only person who hasn’t developed is Kate herself, because she has refused to face the biggest truth: that ‘protecting’ those closest to her has allowed her to hide from herself.
The importance of Katherine V. Forrest in modern lesbian literature cannot be overstated. Curious Wine was the first unabashed, modern and full-on lesbian romance written by a woman for women. While today it may strike some as tame and dated, at the time it was groundbreaking in its honesty. Before Curious Wine we had the depressing melodrama of Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness and the pulp fiction novels of the 1950s and ’60s that felt more like male porn than something women could relate to. Forrest gave us something romantic and soppy, unrealistic in its simplicity, but real in terms of how we felt and how we loved. Then she introduced a whole new genre – the lesbian detective novel. Before the hugely successful Val McDermid, before Claire McNab, Radclyffe and all the others who have followed, there was Katherine V. Forrest’s Kate Delafield.
Forrest has won multiple Lambda Literary Awards, a Golden Crown and the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award. She was senior editor at Naiad for 10 years, and supervising editor at Spinsters Ink during the critical blooming of lesbian fiction. She has edited hundreds of women’s works and dozens of anthologies, and has written book reviews and articles for many major publications. She served on the Lambda Literary Foundation board as president for many years and was instrumental in founding the LGBT Writers’ Retreat.
For many writers and readers Forrest is not only a groundbreaking leading light who opened up lesbian literature for new authors and audiences; she is one of the cornerstones who has supported, improved and developed the whole genre. Perhaps now she has retired from her key roles her fans can look forward to a flurry of books to make up for the long silence. Roll on the next Kate Delafield story – I can’t wait.
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