Before I published Gaudí Afternoon in 1990, I’d written three mysteries set at a leftist printing collective in Seattle. They were among the first lesbian-feminist mysteries featuring an amateur sleuth, printer Pam Nilsen. Each book tackled, in sometimes subversive and sometimes (I hoped) humorous ways, the important issues of the times. No, not Reaganomics or the end of the Cold War—but racism, U.S. support for dictatorships (Murder in the Collective); juvenile prostitution (Sisters of the Road); lesbian S/M and pornography (The Dog Collar Murders).
I could have gone on writing such mysteries. More hot-button topics weren’t lacking in my community: lesbian parenthood, bisexuality, transsexuality, class, anti-Semitism, AIDS. In Pam Nilsen I’d created a curious (though somewhat hapless) sleuth whose investigations usually took place on both the practical and the rhetorical level. Interviewing dubious suspects and possible murderers from all backgrounds shaped an on-going dialectic. The aim was to thoroughly air some of the disagreements that energized and polarized feminist circles. Readers liked the mysteries, which made room for all kinds of opposing viewpoints and didn’t cling to any of them. Readers also often told me they enjoyed the spectacle of mean, hypocritical, and downright rotten female suspects—a refreshing counter-narrative to Utopian lesbian-feminist fiction of the 70s and 80s. It’s probably no surprise that the series was often used in Women’s Studies classes and that its success spread to England and Germany.
Pam Nilsen, her twin sister Penny, and their circle of friends inhabited a world I knew well and that I’d enjoyed turning into fiction. But after five or so years of writing about Pam, I recognized some limitations in her manner of sleuthing; in fact, in her very character. I loved the idea of playing with gender, for instance, but I suspected the somewhat earnest Pam Nilsen might be too unsophisticated to explore such a topic with the poetry and levity it deserved.
In search of a new heroine, I bumped into Cassandra Reilly, a skinny, frizzy-haired Irish-American, originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan (where my second-generation Irish-American mother had gone to college), who had a perch in London and another in Oakland and a wide circle of acquaintances and lovers around the globe.
In my early 20s, I spent three years living, working, and studying in Europe, including a year in Spain and a year in Norway (my memoir Incognito Street tells that story). Around 1982 I began traveling once or twice a year to Europe again, for conferences and book fairs, to do publicity and readings, and to see old and new friends. I lived in London on and off in 1986 and 1987 and much of 1988. In addition to helping run Seal Press and writing mysteries, I was also translating books from Norwegian and was much concerned with the art of translation.
The character of footloose Spanish translator was born around 1986 when my then-girlfriend and now dear friend Jen Green, an editor at the Women’s Press, was putting together the mystery anthology, Reader, I Murdered Him. I contributed a tongue-in-cheek story, “Murder at the International Feminist Book Fair,” that introduced Cassandra Reilly. Around that time, Jen and I made a trip to France and Spain, and for the first time in many years I found myself back in Barcelona, a city I adored and had once known well.
The ideas for Gaudí Afternoon began to percolate then, and I returned to Barcelona several times over the next few years. I was greatly helped in my research by my vivacious friend Candace, originally of Seattle, who had lived in Barcelona for many years and spoke Spanish like a native. She answered my questions, corrected misconceptions, and introduced me to a host of fascinating people. We also (of course!) ate and drank extremely well and routinely stayed up after midnight. My Spanish, which had taken a backseat snooze to Norwegian, began to return. Candace lived at the time near the Pasaje de Concepción, not far from La Pedrera and some of Gaudí’s other astonishing buildings.
Gaudí Afternoon (titled, with a tip of the hat, after Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night), is a comic mystery, without a murder but with a series of heists and other reversals and impersonations, more in the tradition of screwball comedy than noir thriller. One of its themes is shape-shifting––gender, architecture, and translation––and it celebrates the plasticity of forms––biological, structural, and linguistic. The other theme, of course, is Motherhood, in all its kaleidoscopic varieties.
Cassandra Reilly went on to appear in two other full-length mysteries, Trouble in Transylvania (Hungary and Romania) and The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists (Venice), as well as in stories collected in The Death of a Much-Travelled Woman. She was played by Judy Davis in the film of Gaudí Afternoon.
Although these 7 books aren’t currently available in print editions (though there are many floating around the second-hand markets), they were published as ebooks with new covers by Open Road Media in 2013.