In 1981, a 31-year-old child psychologist named Jonathan Kellerman began what would become his first published novel with an unusual goal: to write a mystery that steered clear of all of the genre’s tropes. This crime novel wouldn’t have a perpetually inebriated private eye outwitting an inept police detective, nor would there be a comely girlfriend whose only role was to provide the wisecracking sleuth with food and sex.
Kellerman made his main character, Alex Delaware, a child psychologist like himself—not the usual protagonist of a crime novel. Then, for Delaware’s girlfriend, Kellerman wrote a guitar-maker, a job rarely seen in literature. Speaking by phone from his home in Beverly Hills, Kellerman tells me that “I had Alex, who was dealing with human emotion, with Robin, a woman who’s working with power tools. I was obsessed with avoiding clichés.”
His next idea was for the guy who would become the bestselling, longest-running gay character in all of crime fiction: Delaware’s best friend and crime-solving partner, LAPD detective Milo Sturgis, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound, gruff, brilliant detective, ostracized by his colleagues, tolerated only because he has the highest solve rate in the department. As Kellerman describes Milo’s life in that manuscript, “A gay cop was a person in limbo. You could never be one of the gang back at the station, no matter how well you did your job. And the homosexual community was bound to be suspicious of someone who looked, acted like and was a cop.”
Following two years of rejections, Kellerman found a publisher. The book, called When the Bough Breaks, tells the story of a quack psychiatrist’s murder and Alex Delaware’s efforts to help a traumatized 7-year-old. It deviated so far from crime fiction’s norms that expectations for it were low. “It was not seen as a big book,” recalls Kellerman, and although cagey about the exact amount, he tells me his publisher’s advance worked out to less than $3 per hour.
He and the publisher were “shocked” when the book became a major bestseller, the first in a series that has sold more than 80 million copies. The inventiveness of the characters eventually caught the attention of Stephen King, who wrote of 1987’s Over the Edge, “Kellerman has finally done what critics have been waiting for since the last Raymond Chandler novel: He has reinvented the private eye story.” Every subsequent book featured Milo Sturgis, who in time became such a star in his own right that Kellerman refers to the books as “the Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis novels.”
There’s a popular view now that diverse characters are most authentic when written by people who share their identity, but as a gay teenage crime fiction fan in the 2000s, I found Milo Sturgis, whose creator is a straight man, to be the best, most compelling gay character I’d ever read. I still feel that way about Milo, even now, having read many other gay mystery characters, and having written one myself. I love Milo so much that when I got the offer from the publisher for my mystery novel, A Killing in Costumes, I celebrated by buying a signed first edition copy of When the Bough Breaks from a rare-book dealer.
As I’ve followed publishing’s diversity and representation scandals, from To Kill a Mockingbird to American Dirt, I’ve wondered about the history of this character Milo Sturgis—why he’s still so good and multidimensional and why, for me, he’s better than all the other gay characters who have come since.
In part, Kellerman is simply more talented than most, but it may also be that, in an era where writers must always think about diversity, the process of creation is more fraught than when Kellerman, an empathetic guy who just wanted to write a novel without clichés, was creating Milo. Is it possible for writers to fixate on political and cultural sensibilities without writing clichés? Is it more difficult for writers to be creative when they know their work will be reviewed by sensitivity readers, and with the specter of Twitter mobs, and even cancellation of one’s book or career, always in mind?
At the time When the Bough Breaks was published, in 1985, Milo Sturgis was more than just a non-cliché. His character was a type—a gay cop—that the LAPD insisted didn’t exist. As late as 1989, the LAPD reported that it still lacked a single openly gay officer on its 7,000-member force. In fact, out of 20,000 officers at more than 100 California agencies, there was, the Los Angeles Times reported, not a single openly gay police officer. In 1988, Officer Mitchell Grobeson sued the LAPD, alleging a long pattern of harassment following rumors that he was gay. Among his charges: In the summer of 1985, when he radioed in for backup during a robbery in progress, no one showed. It wasn’t until the 1993 settlement of his lawsuit that the department agreed to end discriminatory practices in its hiring and treatment of LGBT employees.
But even in 1981, while writing that first book, Kellerman knew the LAPD was wrong when it said there were no gay cops. “I had gay friends and they knew gay people within the department,” Kellerman remembers. “But it was not long after the point where the LAPD and most police forces were busting gay bars on a regular basis.” Kellerman was notably pro-gay rights for the time, having had quite a bit of clinical experience with gay kids––a colleague often referred patients to him, “because it wasn’t a foregone conclusion in the ’70s and ’80s that you’re gonna be tolerant. It was a difficult time.”
All of that was the context for the creation of Milo. And yet: There were still more clichés to be avoided. Kellerman’s premise for Milo was that he was, as he puts it, “gay-but-so-what.” This was revolutionary at a time when the LGBT community rarely got representation in entertainment, and, when it did, the clichés were rampant. In iconic horror movies like 1960’s Psycho and 1980’s Dressed to Kill, gender nonconforming people were portrayed as violent or mentally ill. In Police Academy, a gay leather bar called Blue Oyster is a recurring punchline. Even decades after Milo’s debut, shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy celebrated queerness, but they did it by elevating certain stereotypes—fashion sense, campy wit, an obsession with fitness. Kellerman wouldn’t have any of that.
When Milo comes out to Delaware early in When the Bough Breaks, Delaware reflects on his surprise that Milo, an overweight Vietnam vet with an M.A. in literature from the University of Indiana, is in a relationship with a man, since he does not conform to any cliches:
It was hard to accept, at first, his being gay, despite all my supposed psychological sophistication. I know all the facts. That they make up 5 to 10 percent of virtually any human grouping. That most of them look just like me and you. That they could be anybody—the butcher, the baker, the local homicide dick. That most of them are reasonably well-adjusted.
And yet the stereotypes adhere to the brain. You expect them to be mincing, screaming, nelly fairies; leather-armored shaven-skull demons; oh-so-preppy mustachioed young things in Izod shirts and khaki trousers; or hiking-booted bulldykes.
Milo didn’t look homosexual.
But he was and had been comfortable with it for several years. He wasn’t in the closet, neither did he flaunt it.
Kellerman captures Delaware as uncomfortable but determined to accept his friend’s revelation—a mildly homophobic but empathic person, perhaps the best one could have expected at the time:
“It’s no big deal, Milo.”
“No.” I wasn’t really all that comfortable with it. But I was damn well going to work on it.
In subsequent books, Kellerman tackled the injustices gays faced. In 2002’s The Murder Book, Milo is targeted by fellow cops who plant BDSM porn in his work locker. In another, Milo’s longtime boyfriend, Richard Silverman, an ER doc, is harassed by a patient who refuses to be treated by a gay man—and then blamed by coworkers for the workflow disruption caused by the belligerent patient. The books are certainly progressive and pro-gay, but mostly the gay representation reflects Kellerman’s aversion to stereotypes. In 1986’s Blood Test, Delaware describes Milo as “great to have around ... when your preconceptions get overly calcified.” And in 1987’s Over the Edge, when Delaware’s well-kept home and friendship with Milo cause a pair of detectives assume that he is gay, Delaware is “filled with anger. Not at being mistaken for a homosexual but at being categorized and dehumanized.”
When the first book was published, Milo’s sexuality went mostly unremarked upon in reviews, though Kirkus nodded to it, noting simply that the action begins when “Alex agrees to help his pal, gay cop Milo, with a murder case.” Over time, as the books climbed the bestseller lists, Kellerman was pleased that the letters he received were overwhelmingly positive. Gay cops wrote to thank him for creating such a real character, one that they felt represented them in a genre that was, at the time, frequently overtly homophobic. The generation of crime writers who preceded Kellerman—Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, and too many pulp novelists to name—often wrote books rife with misogyny and casual racism, to the point where they can be hard for a modern reader to get through. Kellerman, though, was part of a new generation of crime novelists whose works reflected the social progress happening around him, and his confidence in the open-mindedness of readers grew with the response to his work. “I think most people of all political persuasions are very inherently tolerant,” he tells me. “To me the only meaningful distinction isn’t right or left, it’s tolerant or intolerant.” In fact, in all his years of writing the books, and all the millions of copies sold, he says he received just one letter critical of him for including a positive portrayal of a gay character—and that letter was from a psychotic teenager. “Clearly an unbalanced person,” Kellerman recalls.
Since then, diversity in fiction, especially in crime fiction, is no longer merely tolerated, but celebrated. Cozy mysteries, a genre in which amateur sleuths solve murders with little graphic violence, are traditionally the whitest, straightest subgenre in crime fiction—think Murder, She Wrote—and yet 2021’s bestselling cozy mystery debut was Mia Manansala’s unapologetically queer-Filipino romp, Arsenic & Adobo. As New York Times crime columnist Sarah Weinman put it in a 2021 column, “the cozy mystery has become one of the most diverse, and most vibrant, in contemporary crime fiction.” My recent debut novel, A Killing in Costumes, is a cozy mystery starring a gay guy and his lesbian ex-wife who open a Hollywood memorabilia store together. I’m certainly aware that the push for more diverse characters and authors helped me find a publisher, and the fact that a historically staid genre is expanding its rules and opening itself up to different types writers and characters is a wonderful thing for publishing, readers, and society.
But publishing’s push for diversity hasn’t come without complications for writers as they try to comply with its demands. A writer I know was recently asked by her editor to change the identity of a Native American battling alcoholism in one of her books, out of concern the character adhered too closely to stereotypes. Jeanine Cummins, who is part Puerto Rican, was accused of engaging in cultural appropriation with her mega-bestselling novel American Dirt, because she told the story of a Mexican migrant. Another writer told me about a body-positive romance novel whose publisher’s marketing team had been concerned that, while the author “identified as fat,” she was “not as fat” as her book’s heroine, which might trigger an uproar on Twitter. We may not be far from a point where authors are told to gain or lose weight in order to write certain characters.
In the young adult genre, the scandals have been unrelenting. Debut author Amelie Wen Zhao pulled her 2019 book, Blood Heir, prior to publication after Goodreads users attacked her for writing outside of her own experience in her portrayal of American slavery. Also in 2019, Kosoko Jackson, a debut author who worked as a sensitivity reader, pulled his novel, A Place for Wolves, following social media outrage about its representation of Muslims and its portrayal of the Kosovo war—even though, as Publishers Weekly wrote, “the book had been positioned as an #OwnVoices LGBTQ romance,” a popular hashtag that describes books featuring diverse characters written by authors who share their characters’ identity.
I can’t help but wonder what exactly a fiction writer is supposed to be doing, if not writing imaginatively outside of one’s own experience. My novel centers around the life of a 90-year former film vixen, widowed in Palm Springs, surrounded by the golden age of Hollywood costumes she’s collected over the past 60 years. I can profess no personal knowledge of what that existence is like, because I am not Debbie Reynolds, the film legend on whom I based the character. But I don’t think that matters. To my mind, a novelist’s job is to imagine other lives, and then to write them in a way that feels real and engaging, understanding that your work is not necessarily authentic, and may feel especially inauthentic to those whose lives closely mirror your characters’, because what you have written is fiction.
In an FAQ on his website, Kellerman alludes to his own status as an occasional target of allegations of appropriation. “At the beginning I was lauded by gay readers and organizations for creating a non-stereotypic character. Then I got criticized for presuming that I, as a straight man, could capture the gay experience.”
I ask him about this. Does he, as a fiction writer, think a writer has to write only about what he or she knows firsthand?
“It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he says. “This absolutely moronic notion that only people who’ve experienced something directly can write about it. A novel has to be novel. We novelists are talented people. We imagine things in a way that normal people don’t, OK? Imagine if I only had to write about white straight guys. That’s not a novel. I have to be able to write about women. I have to be able to write about gay people and straight people and good people and bad people and tall people and short people. That’s what a novel is. To think anyone would say anything different, that’s just stupid. And we’re living in the age of stupid.”
Kellerman must know, I say, that some of these views he holds aren’t popular on the internet.
“Anybody who cares about art and creativity needs to take a very, very strong stand on just shooting down this notion. And it will wither because it’s dumb and it makes no sense and it doesn’t work.”
Besides, he says, “People love Milo. He’s such a cranky guy.”
While Kellerman has been mostly left alone to write what and how he wants—his books are perhaps too popular for a social media mob to target successfully, and his audience mostly too old to understand the latest views about diversity and representation—he worries about the impact self-policing might have on other writers.
Indeed, the publishing industry’s fixation on appropriation can stymie a writing career before it’s even begun. In a viral tweet, Elizabeth Holden, who teaches physics at the University of Wisconsin, described the reaction of one agent when she pitched a young adult romance novel, the protagonist of which is a socially anxious girl who falls in love with a girl on a rival roller derby team. The agent liked the book but, upon learning the author was married to a man, passed on the work, explaining that although the author could be bisexual, it “wouldn’t work, as a business decision.” The agent was perfectly nice about it, but was still concerned that the author’s marriage to a man would make selling the novel difficult.
All of this creates a host of practical problems. Authors now face the same intrusive questions that were rightly deemed homophobic a couple of decades ago—only now it’s in the name of social justice and diversity in publishing, and it’s the industry’s gatekeepers , its editors, agents, and publicists, who find themselves in the awkward, offensive, and inappropriate position of prying into personal lives. This is the inevitable result of an identity-obsessed, appropriation-anxious industry.
If Kellerman pitched Milo Sturgis today, would he have encountered the same bias, depriving the genre of its bestselling and most richly rendered gay character? When I ask him, Kellerman says he’s not sure and doesn’t really think about it. If you’re looking for a voice interested in a deep engagement with critics of cultural appropriation, Kellerman isn’t that. But his objection to the entire premise is an important one: He views even well-meaning concerns about appropriation and representation as a hindrance to the creative, open-ended process novelists need to produce original, imaginative work.
“Introspection is the enemy of creativity,” he tells me. “It’s what I’d advise any novelist: filter out the bullshit and just write what you want to write. It’s the closest thing to playing God. You’re creating your own world, and it’s so much fun. It’s just the greatest job in the world. I’m hoping this craziness, this sensitivity stuff, just passes because it’s just silly. We used to say sticks and stones. Now it’s all about words are as bad as deeds. What a bunch of nonsense.”
In his own small, understated way, Kellerman is taking a stand.
Last year, while looking at the copy edit for City of the Dead, the 37th book in the Delaware series, his eye was drawn to one mark: The copy editor had suggested he change the word gypsy to nomad.
“I emailed her and said, ‘I appreciate the copy edit, but don’t even try it.’ It’s on that level now where people are so exquisitely worried, you can’t have normal dialogue. You can’t have a bad person say something racist.” He pauses, a legendary suspense writer perhaps contemplating a plot. “A woke villain would be an interesting concept, wouldn’t it?”
Zac Bissonnette is the New York Times bestselling author of several nonfiction books, including The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute.