Jen Shieff's The Gentlemen's Club, and its sequel, The Vanishing Act.

Lesbian crime series by Jen Shieff a window to queer lives in 1960s Auckland

Two homegrown forays into lesbian crime fiction pile on the historic detail and pop-culture references.

To avoid disturbing blokes and the patriarchy in general, lesbians in Auckland in the late 1950s and 60s needed to keep things on the down-low — much like present-day London, where teenage boys recently beat up two women on a bus for refusing to kiss each other on demand.

It’s territory that Jen Shieff explores adeptly in The Vanishing Act, longlisted in June for a Ngaio Marsh Award, and a sequel to The Gentlemen’s Club. The books fall into the genre of lesbian crime fiction, a boundary-hopping category that has characters romancing and working out their sexuality while being embroiled in a crime or three.

Child abuse, pornography, abortion, rape and prostitution (albeit a reasonably happy-hooker version) feature in the books, but unlike in canonical noir fiction there’s no tough-guy Shamus or loose ends, or much moral ambiguity. The bad men — in The Vanishing Act, notably the medics on Remuera Rd and administrators at the University of Auckland — eventually get their dues. Bee Digby (cheroot-smoking lesbian madam who owns a brothel in Mt Eden) also fares poorly as the plot wends on in The Gentlemen’s Club, but not because she’s queer — more because she’s your garden-variety pragmatic capitalist who has a lapse in judgement.

Bee is one of a recurring cast in the carefully plotted books, which along with their covers have a certain Hitchcockian vibe. Rival lesbian madam Rita Saunders is also a regular; she has a brothel in more upmarket Remeura, decorated with Georgian and Rococo furnishings, presumably de rigueur with the clientele of “drunken sailors, strutting vice marshals and ministers of the crown”. While Rita is a union-basher, in other ways she’s a true democrat — with a heart of gold and a cheery and clear-sighted outlook. She describes herself as “a captain of her own industry, a successful, independent woman living on the edge of the law, which wasn’t unusual in business considering the amount of tax dodging that went on. What was really so different about her, except that she happened to be woman?” Rita lives, bravely for the times, openly with her lover Glenn, an employee of the Department of Education.

As an aside, and in marked contrast to Shieff’s brutal themes, sex between her lesbian characters is consensual and tends to be depicted as more swoony than libidinous, or perhaps more logistical than swoony. Here’s Rita, part way through a running commentary: “What on earth was going to happen to her next, she wondered, before letting herself drift away as if she was vapour. And suddenly, magically, there was Glenn, using her ankle to bring Rita to a climax…”

Another character, Rosemary Cawley, affords an interesting window into what may have gone (and may still go) on at Elam School of Fine Arts and the University of Auckland. Rosemary’s a sassy, posh art historian from England, who is “living in the shadows”, sent to the colonies after her parents discover her illustrated Sapphic poetry. “Would you like to come back to my place?” Rosemary asks a visiting scholar. “I’d like to show you my garden.” Rosemary’s coy yet go-for-it attitude extends to her professional life: she is unconvinced by the university’s motto, Ingenio et Labore (“natural ability and hard work”). “Without that certain something between your legs,” she thinks, “you’d have to sit there quietly, wait your turn.” Rosemary sets to making friends in high places, and giving the place a “rev up” while tolerating arse-­patting from senior staff.

Shieff is an assiduous researcher. Characters are sometimes drawn with charming detail. The Gentlemen’s Club, set in 1957, has Istvan Ziegler (hard-working Hungarian refugee) being propositioned by a man in a toilet. Feeling neither revulsion or anger, Istvan graciously replies: “Nem, de köszönöm” (or, “No, but thank you.”) Over breakfast Lindsay Pitcaithly (sinister St Heliers resident) reads the newspaper and about the story of Mollie the elephant, who while touring with a circus ate a poisonous tutu and died in Ohakune. The kindly policeman Allan Maynard wears Dr Scholl’s blue-and-white sandals in the weekends. (It’s Allan who is the stand-out deliverer of NZ laconic: “The sooner this nutter was behind bars, the better,” he says on arresting the deeply fractured perp in The Vanishing Act.)

At other times, however, Shieff’s unremitting enthusiasm for historic detail and references to pop culture (menus, lollies, television programmes, movies, books, music, street names, fashion labels…) clog the narrative, and detract from what her books do well: sketch a world and way of being that people, surprisingly, still find indecipherable and threatening.

The Gentlemen’s Club (2015) and The Vanishing Act (2018); Mary Egan Publishing, $30 each.

This piece originally appeared in the July-August 2019 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline "Let's Go: 1960s Auckland"

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