The Queer Sexual Tension in Detective Stories

Obsession, devotion, pursuit – all can be acts synonymous to falling in love. However, they are also the key elements for a detective cat-and-mouse story. The relationship between a detective and the criminal they hunt is one that – in many great crime stories – becomes intimately close. They chase each other, play with each other, learn everything they can about the other and they always think of them. When these stories involve same-gender characters, an element of queerness comes into play. However, it’s not as simple as obsession that drives this analysis – detective stories in general have many elements that can be representative of queerness. 

In the simplest of interpretations, a criminal is someone completely unencumbered by social pressures: someone who lives outside the norm, although albeit in a less “free-living” way and more of a “free-killing” manner. They have no interest in being like everyone else and often feel at odds with the average way of thinking, usually because of some uncontrollable state within them. In this way, these villains can often fall into a representative analogy of queerness: they bend convention, they break the rules, they live their lives feeling separate from everyone around. Relating criminal activity with queerness is obviously problematic for an onslaught of reasons but it is a part of our history, even our current reality in many countries still, so the unconscious (and some cases conscious) subtextual pairing isn’t that wild an accusation. This analogy is strengthened by writers and actors tendency to queer-code their villains. Some of the best villains in fiction are flamboyantly evil, fabulous in their deviance and their pure camp joy for causing chaos. Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock, played by the brilliant Andrew Scott, is a perfect example of this cheeky camp villain practically begging Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) to kiss him; their sexual tension was so notable that it ignited Tumblr fandoms with various fanfictions revolving around this supposed attraction. With this history of queer-coded villains, it’s natural a detective story with a same-gender detective and criminal would start to spark queer shipping in the fandoms.  

The cat-and-mouse relationship between the criminal and the detective hunting them down is brimming with sexual tension. The detective inevitably becomes obsessed with the criminal, spending every second thinking about them, staring at pictures of them or their crimes, talking incessantly about them, like a lover enamoured by their paramour. If the detective has any other partners in life, their relationship becomes fragile as they feel second place to the criminal that envelops the detective’s mind. This dynamic is made most clear in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s smash-hit Killing Eve, where the subtext is removed and instead brought to the forefront. Eve (Sandra Oh) falls deeply into an obsession for the deliciously extra Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and this professional interest quickly turns seductive for the both of them as their attraction grows for one another. Even though Eve already has a husband (Owen McDonnell), he is increasingly ignored  by Eve as she grows more intent on catching Villanelle until eventually he leaves completely. What Killing Eve does best is that it canonises the subtext that’s present in so many crime dramas, that being the queer meaning behind a detective’s obsession.   

The dynamic of a detective hunting down someone else can also be seen as them hunting down the part of themself that’s remained a mystery to them – their queerness. The best fiction presents a villain that mirrors qualities within the detective – they are the twisted yin and yang of one another. If the villain represents an out and proud queer person, then the detective is the closeted yet curious and their storyline involves either coming to terms with their true identity or fighting tirelessly to control and defeat it. One of the most infamous detective-criminal relationships in fiction is that of Batman and the Joker; one such interpretation of their dynamic is of the closeted and the out gay man. Joker dresses in fabulously bright colours, lives far outside the norm and doesn’t give a damn about the rules, whereas Batman is tied to a rigid code and creeps about the night, with his true identity hidden. Batman is constantly out to defeat and control the Joker and yet he can never (or chooses not to ever) kill him, even when he thinks he has defeated the Joker, he comes skipping back in cackling away. They’re tied to each other, they exist together, and boy should they just get down and dirty together already. 

In many cases, these stories build to a climax where the detective, seduced by the villain’s lifestyle, also starts to commit crimes; this can be read as the detective coming to terms with their queerness. In NBC’s, Hannibal, the strange fascination and tension between Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) and the main detective, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), was palpable from the start. Hannibal initiates an intimate relationship of sorts with Will when he becomes his therapist and he uses this opportunity to plant ideas of murder in Will’s mind. Hannibal sees a part of Will that has thus far remain closeted within and so he tries to unleash this side of him. Eventually, Will falls for Hannibal’s manipulation and starts to enact heinous crimes of elaborate murder himself. Together, they’re quite the power couple. Their relationship dynamic is one of curiosity, obsession, possession. In one episode where Graham tries to orchestrate Hannibal’s murder, Hannibal is visibly upset by this but not just because of the threat to his life, but because it was Graham who planned it. The show itself is wonderfully camp in a macabre sense simply from the elaborate and artistic manner of kills, with them set up like an ornamental arrangement that could sit in the center of a particularly gross dinner table (likely one served with Hannibal’s recent recipe for feet fricassee). As well as this, there is of course the symbolic nature of cannibalism at play, something that has been used in media to represent an anamours desire to be one with your lover, to have them inside of you in an extreme bastardisation of intimacy. 

The relationship dynamic between the two is bombastic, unconventional and unique to the two involved, with everyone else around judging their obsession. Historically these subtextual relationships end in the defeat of the criminal, as a means of showing how that “type of person” must be defeated – an ending that was popular during the haunting era of the Hays Code in Hollywood. However, now we see more stories where the detective is seduced by the criminal, where they are free to express a new side of themselves. Is this progress? Well we’re still being coded as the bad guys so maybe not, however at least our characters are the ones having all the fun.