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Investigating the lesbian detective in Javier Otaola’s Brocheta de carne (novel).

Publicado en Clues: A Journal of detection

Una felicidad convencional (?) – Investigating the lesbian detective in Javier Otaola’s Brocheta de carne

Jacky Collins. Northumbria University.

When the detective is female, the criminality takes on an aura of inevitability; descendants of Eve, all women are wrongdoers, lawbreakers. Furthermore, in breaking social taboos, by attempting to take over male position and prerogatives, women detectives emphasize their deviancy, their distance from the proper role of Woman. When the female detective is also lesbian, her transgressive behaviour multiplies exponentially (Klein 177).

Gillian Plain has commented that for the ‘hard-boiled’ heterosexual female private investigator “[t]he tension between outsider and agency seems irresolvable” (164). She further contemplates whether “a lesbian policewoman [could] fare any better” in inhabiting the dual polarised sites of belonging and marginality (164). This article will offer a reading of Javier Otaola’s novel Brocheta de carne (2003), in which one of the key protagonists, Felicidad Olaizola, an inspector with the Basque police force, is responsible for investigating a series of gruesome homicides in Bilbao where the female victims have been brutally raped and murdered. The reading will suggest that in the text under discussion the archetypal marginalized Other of the lesbian character succeeds in occupying, albeit temporarily, the position of subject and in so doing inhabits the dual sites of conformist and transgressor. It will conclude by proposing that Otaola’s lesbian inspector can indeed be seen to undermine the masculine hegemony traditionally associated with the role of the detective, which may stem from societal changes in contemporary Spain.

As Berglund affirms “[i]n novels written by men, women detectives are very few indeed (although they do exist)” (138). This trend is evident in Spanish detective fiction, where the most successful writers and protagonists are predominantly male, with perhaps the only significant exception being Alicia Giménez Bartlett’s Petra Delicado series. As yet there are few examples of lesbian detectives in Spanish popular fiction – Van Guardia’s Emma García apart – and consequently it is not possible to talk of a lesbian sub-genre as in the case of Anglo-American-Australian detective fiction.

Otaola’s Brocheta de carne is an unusual example of such fiction for, although the main protagonist (Felicidad Olaizola) is a lesbian, it is nonetheless problematic to locate the novel within the category of lesbian detective fiction since the author is male. In this context Felicidad’s – relatively positive – experience working within the police force could be interpreted on two different levels: either the author could be surmised to lack any awareness of the discrimination experienced by gay and lesbian police officers, as frequently depicted in gay and lesbian detective/crime fiction or, and perhaps more radically, his portrayal is one that calls for a reassessment of the construction of such identities, suggesting that feelings of alienation and persecution are internal perceptions rather than the result of any external oppression.

At the beginning of the novel the Basque lesbian detective inspector Felicidad Olaizola is presented as both lonely and alone, following a recent break up with her partner Olga, and may thus be said to be portrayed in the position of emotional estrangement traditionally associated with the male sleuth. This initial sense of disconnection shifts once Felicidad meets Teresa and immediately invites this relative stranger to live with her. After being together for only two months, the relationship between the women is described in positive terms as displaying characteristics and habits typical of those often attributed to a happily married heterosexual couple (280).1 Here Otaola breaks with the traditional pattern of man as subject and woman as object and in so doing he disrupts the patriarchal symbolic order, which is understood to be organised around the basis of difference between the phallus and the lack thereof. Thus he succeeds in destabilising the identity of Subject and Other since, in a relationship between two women, the lesbian identity occupies the position of both Subject and Object simultaneously. Consequently, with the phallus eliminated from this paradigm, that which is seen to constitute difference is removed (Cixous, 1995; Irigaray, 1977 & 1985). As if to underscore this phallus-free paradigm, reference is made to the fact that the club where the two women meet is not for butch lesbians (65).2 This reference further serves to exclude any semblance of masculinity from the text.

Yet despite the work’s portrayal of a fulfilling, passionate same-sex love interest, Otaola appears unable to avoid replicating the generic norm that inevitably assigns all love interests to domesticity or demise. There is a transient quality to the bond between the two women, with Teresa unwilling to reveal who she really is (presumably due to her former membership of the Basque separatist group ETA) or to engage in making plans for the future. Indeed this portrait of lesbian domestic bliss proves to be short-lived, when Teresa is later murdered by one of the serial killers shortly after Felicidad appears on television in an attempt to ensnare the perpetrators.

The principal characteristic that could be seen to mark Felicidad as Other is her sexuality. Although the fact of her lesbianism is not a secret, conversely the issue does not appear to be of any note or concern in the world she inhabits. Indeed, any questioning of Felicidad’s sexuality comes primarily from within herself; in the course of such self-examination she even ponders on the archaic theory that to be a lesbian is to be a man trapped in a woman’s body (Wolfe & Penelope 9) (47).3 In fact, the sole external derogatory reference to her sexuality in the text is to be found, perhaps significantly, in the thoughts of Chefo, the serial killer, as he contemplates Felicidad becoming his next victim, referring to her contemptuously as ‘cop’ and ‘dyke’ (301).4 It is conceivably their shared status of social deviant that permits the killer not only to name the detective’s sexuality, but also to denigrate her, in the absence of any such acknowledgement, or vilification, from among her peers.

[Jackie Collins Dr Noir – Jacky Collins – Newcastle Noir]

An explanation for this position of invisibility may be understood by what Plain terms ‘[s]ociety’s inability to see the lesbian’ (167). Indeed the detective herself can be seen to address this issue in her fears that her documents or certificates will have disappeared, that she will not be seen to exist as others do (295).5 Yet her anxieties would seem unfounded, since she is acknowledged by her colleagues and superiors. Moreover despite the absence of reference to Felicidad’s sexuality within the professional sphere, the author does however permit the reader to ‘see’ the lesbian, by revealing aspects of her life beyond the police force in the private sphere. She is depicted as entering lesbian chat-rooms when lonely, frequenting the local lesbian club/bar to meet friends and, despite some initial heartache, ultimately enjoying a fulfilling relationship with another woman.

While evidently an accepted member of the establishment, Felicidad’s failure to be subsumed completely into the patriarchal system she inhabits may be said to be typified by her sexuality and her reluctance to wholeheartedly identify with the Law. Early in the narrative, in her declaration that she does not aspire to a conventional happiness since in some way she feels like a heretic (22)6, it becomes clear that she considers herself a rebel and an outsider, the play on words on her name alluding to her inability to conform to societal conventions. Her outsider status is further underscored when she interviews Carlos Delgado, the pastor of the Evangelical church where the body of the second victim is found. Within this context Felicidad reflects that she feels compassion for all heresy and that in some ways she also considers herself a heretic (118)7. For her however, this view is not considered to be negative; indeed the opposite seems to be true, since she claims that this position offers a special kind of joy, a feeling of freedom and a positive sense of difference from the majority, in opposition to the negativity of the position the lesbian outsider is often held to occupy (Zimmerman 33-54).

Although Otaola’s detective may by her own admission be viewed as an outsider, as someone who inhabits or at least identifies with the margins of society, on a number of occasions throughout the narrative she is located in a position of privilege and portrayed as someone who has the facility to cross boundaries, both literally and figuratively. She is, for instance, a member of an ancient and elite culinary society which meets in the French Basque Country, requiring her to cross both geographical and linguistic boundaries. More significantly however perhaps the most privileged position she occupies is that of spokesperson for the Bilbao police on a regional television chat show. It is in this context that the invisible lesbian Other, appropriating the prerogative of patriarchy, enjoys the privileged site of the speaking Subject. As if to underscore this appropriation, ultimately it is the voice of Felicidad that closes the narrative, suggesting that although patriarchy prevails, as witnessed by the configuration at her hospital bedside – Pastor Delgado (Religion), Nagusi (Law) and the doctor (Medicine) – the voice of the Other need not be silenced by traditional values and institutions (317).

Initially it would appear that Otaola’s depiction of his central character is consistent with Kristeva’s theory (1974) that women can only gain access to the agency of the symbolic order through identifying with the father and by denying themselves the pleasure and comfort of both the mother’s body and their own. By pursuing a career in law enforcement Felicidad could indeed be seen to have identified with the Father. However, despite being employed within the archetypal patriarchal institution of the police, she can be seen to symbolically resist the law of the Father by refusing to comply with her own father’s wish that she follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer. Indeed she goes on to confirm that she is instead more interested in what lies on the other side of the law (45-46)8, and that she feels more alive when she is in contact with those considered ‘pariahs’ by mainstream society (47).9

A further example of this resistance emerges when Felicidad attends her sister’s wedding. In this setting she is once more portrayed as the dislocated outsider; although the detective inspector has previously been married, she acknowledges early in the narrative that she did so merely as an attempt to follow social convention, before deciding to control her own destiny and live out her lesbian identity (29).10 Thus she may be seen to refuse to comply with the will of her father and with patriarchal dictates that would see women submit to the wishes and desires of men.

Likewise the death of her mother when she was a little girl resulted in the loss of pleasure and comfort of the mother’s body, and in a fundamental need for Felicidad to identify with her (the) father. However Felicidad’s behaviour in adulthood appears to counter Kristeva’s theory in that she seeks pleasure in and from the female body – both with friends (Leire, her financial adviser) and with lovers (Olga, Teresa and Pinnie) – and by the absence of such pleasure being sought from or offered to any male body, appears to contest Kristeva’s theory. Even her colleague, Alegría, notes that the romantic feelings he harbours for Felicidad will never be fulfilled (88).11 Therefore although initially denied the comforts of the maternal body, she does not deprive herself of physical pleasure and, in finding that pleasure mirrored in another female body, Felicidad could be said to have regained that which was lost at an early age. Further examples of the inspector’s penchant for physical gratification can be seen in her membership of the elite gastronomic society “Très Ancienne et Très Vénérable Confrèrie de la Cuiller d’Or”, and in the extravagant purchases she makes from Jacqueline Parkman’s chic lingerie boutique in Biarritz (162).12

Since Brocheta de carne (novel) can be seen to belong to the police procedural sub-genre of crime fiction, it is not surprising that the protagonist works within the boundaries of the institutional system. Yet unlike many other lesbian detectives in fiction, Felicidad does not carry out her investigative work from the margins, but rather is portrayed as operating from a position of entrenchment within the system. This is demonstrated in the positive professional relations she enjoys with other members of the force, and with the forensic officers she works alongside, all of them male. Moreover, unlike other fictional female detectives, such as Lynda la Plante’s Jane Tennison, who are often depicted as a focus of persecution and discrimination within a vast law enforcement agency, with Olaizola there is no evidence of the tension that often arises when a woman inhabits what are deemed to be traditionally male spaces (Tomc 50). Nevertheless Felicidad appears to be the only woman in Otaola’s text who occupies such a position; other female characters depicted in the work are situated in the more traditional roles of mother, wife, shop assistant, teacher, nurse or prostitute, with the majority of these shown to be victims of either physical or emotional abuse at the hands of men.

Throughout the investigation it is repeatedly stated that Felicidad is the one in charge of the case (115).13 It is she who is in authority, an authority that is never questioned, and which commands due respect from those working with and for her; in response to her order to interview neighbours living in the same building as Lara Piñeiro, Saki, one of her officers, responds respectfully and submissively (60).14 Indeed, as was the case with the issue of her sexuality, the only characters who question her investigative abilities are Felicidad herself and Chefo, in each case in particular when the investigation is dragging on with little sign of resolution. The killer at this point refers to Felicidad as a ‘bird’ just like the rest (301)15, while Olaizola’s reaction to her sense of her own inadequacy is to give up on the case and ask the Chief of Police to replace her (273).16

It is frequently argued that the crime fiction genre reinforces the dominant social order (Porter 122). However, in Brocheta de carne, Otaola employs what Dollimore has termed the “perverse dynamic” (15, 229), where the body that upholds the law is in fact the Other, the pervert against whom the law is directed. As a consequence Felicidad’s ‘relationship with and alienation from the structures of the law that she also embodies, remains in a state of constant and complex negotiation’ (Plain 170). In this way Otaola’s protagonist undermines the masculine hegemony associated with both the genre and society as a whole. For example, in contrast to what is commonly expressed, both in fiction and in real life, to be the problematic experience of gay men and lesbians operating within the police force, Felicidad attests that being a police officer has actually made it easy for her to be a lesbian (16).17

The challenge she does however face to rupture masculine hegemony is to be found outside the institution, as Felicidad struggles to confront the masculine force that would seek to bring about the suffering and subjugation of women, as manifested in the brutal murders she is investigating. Against the cityscape of Bilbao and its hostile urban environment, Mikel Galdos, the second serial killer, could, as he surveys the city below from his penthouse apartment, be interpreted as occupying the position of the Nietzschean Superman (35-37). In contrast Felicidad is depicted as being dwarfed by the immense dimensions of the city. This disparity is emphasised by the reduced dimensions of the inspector’s apartment, described as being so small that she and Teresa can talk to each other quite comfortably from different rooms (270).18 Further this urban backdrop, as Humm explains, “epitomises the economic and the social constraints characteristic of most women’s lives” (193), underscoring the connection between urban anxieties and female victimisation on which the crime novel commonly relies.

As a result of the traditional masculine hegemony that pervades detective fiction “women have been particularly targeted for mutilation and depersonalization” (Dunant 16). Felicidad’s treatment of and identification with the victims serve to challenge this subjugation. Just as Tomc suggests that La Plante’s Tennyson’s “choice to see the victims […] points up the biases in the criminal system as a whole” (48), so Felicidad’s choice to ‘see’ the murdered women as individuals, rather than as anonymous corpses, perhaps parallels her own fear of becoming invisible. Thus although Felicidad represents the law and her dealings with the abject take place on a professional level, there would seem to be an underlying connection between the victims and the inspector, as evidenced by the particular sensitivity Felicidad displays towards the victims’ circumstances.

On close examination it is possible to identify a number of factors that would seem to link the detective to the murdered women. The first such connection relates to Lara Piñeiro, a prostitute from Puerto Rico, who lives in a marginalized and run-down area of the city. She, like Felicidad, is an outsider, in her case through both nationality and profession, and both women are also orphans and divorced. The association is intensified as Felicidad takes Lara’s pulse in order to ascertain whether or not she is still alive. Moreover the detective is anchored in this particular murder scene on a very intimate level when the perfume worn by Lara (212 by Carolina Herrera) is described as being the same one used by Felicidad’s ex-partner Olga. Further connections linking Felicidad and the murdered women can be observed in the second victim, Soledad Estaban, having had an extramarital affair, which suggests sexual transgression, like the police officer’s lesbian sexuality, challenging the heterosexual norm. Likewise, through her non-Spanish nationality, Ma Quan Mei, the third victim, shares the status of outsider. Ultimately Felicidad’s identification with the murder victims comes full circle when she herself is subjected to a brutal attempt on her life by Chefo, finally overcoming him in the ensuing struggle.

In critiquing Katherine V. Forrest’s Delafield fictions, Whitlock has argued that such texts question the traditional detective/police procedural by bringing together locations that previously have appeared to be ‘mutually exclusive and in eternal opposition: the gay bar and the police station’ (113). This notion is reiterated by Teresa, when she and Felicidad first become acquainted in the lesbian bar Shiva. She comments that she would never had imagined a policewoman in a place like that. She further explains that she had always believed such places to be a haven from authority, the law and morality, but now she can see that things are not as she had imagined (176).19 Thus in the persona of Felicidad Olaizola, and in the juxtaposition of her lesbian/policewoman existence, Otaola has succeeded in creating a space where these two oppositional sites do overlap without creating conflict or tension.

There are a number of possible explanations for this achievement. Firstly, Berglund (2000: 138- 152) has examined the devices and strategies that have been used by crime fiction writers in the past to present interesting women characters without troubling the traditional plot structure. One such technique involves the representation of the female protagonist as both perpetrator and victim. Otaola could be said to have employed such an approach in shaping the character of Felicidad: while on the one hand she can be seen as ‘guilty’ of breaking societal norms by reason of her sexuality and her identifications with other outsiders, on the other she may be viewed as victim both as a woman, and as someone who is the subject of a violent attack by one of the killers.

[Edición Sapere Aude] Secondly, Plain’s proposal that ‘lesbian detective fiction might constitute a viable site for a radical challenge to reactionary and repressive social forces’ (195), might explain how Otaola has managed to create a female character that contests patriarchy yet comes away relatively unscathed. Although it may be conceivably unrealistic to expect a male author to create a credible lesbian character that challenges both literary and societal norms, in contrast to other male writers of the genre, Otaola does allow his female detective a considerable degree of independence and autonomy. Nevertheless many of the novel’s other female characters, that might aspire to a similar position of privilege, are instead subsequently punished, at one extreme (in

the case of the murder victims) by a violent, humiliating death, and at the other (in the case of those women engaged in heterosexual relationships) by domestic subjugation. It is perhaps worth noting that this aspect of Otaola’s text is a recurring theme found also in women’s crime fiction.

To conclude, in contemporary Western literature there is no shortage of examples of lesbian detective fiction where the main (lesbian) protagonist solves the crime with the help of other (usually female) characters, resulting in the re-establishment of social order. However unusually, and somewhat ironically, what distinguishes Brocheta de carne from other such works is that here such fiction has been produced by a male author, who has succeeded in creating a character that is able to inhabit simultaneously the dual sites of belonging and marginality.

Thus the marginal character of Felicidad can be said to have troubled, to a certain extent, the structure of patriarchy, through her sexuality, her autonomy and her profession. By the close of the narrative however, order is restored, with the lesbian subject depicted as surrounded by the symbolic representatives of masculine hegemony, of the very institutions that have historically sought to prevent lesbians from taking their place in mainstream society by espousing ‘values and discourses that eradicate [them] or render [them] invisible’ (Wolfe & Penelope 3). In this instance however the presence of this configuration does not result in this lesbian being overwhelmed, silenced or eliminated. Indeed it is Felicidad who wins the day with Busturia, the Chief of Police, acknowledging that thanks to her the killers are finally detained. The final figure to appear at the Felicidad’s bedside is Pinnie, the woman she met in a lesbian chat-room in the opening pages of the novel (14-25), her appearance perhaps signposting the policewoman’s physical and emotional recovery. Thus despite the female protagonist of Brocheta de carne having inhabited the position of victim, the traditional role of women in crime fiction, and having suffered considerable personal loss along the way, it could be argued that in the character of Felicidad Olaizola Otaola has succeeded in creating a lesbian detective who is able to resolve the tension that exists between outsider and agency, without being returned to the margins. The basis for this construct, which appears to contradict the female detective expounded by Klein, may lie in a reappraisal of the status of the lesbian within society, the author perhaps suggesting that Spanish society has evolved in its perception of this identity, and that it is now for lesbians themselves to do the same. Indeed against the backdrop of recent legislative changes, (in particular the introduction of same-sex marriage in Spain in July 2005) and of the 2004 CIS opinion poll, which showed that 68% of those surveyed believed gays and lesbians should have the same rights as heterosexuals, it may be that the time has come for lesbians to re-examine the validity of the marginalized lesbian identity, in a society where conventional norms are both changed and changing.20

Javier Otaola.

Literatura & Libertad



1 “Comenzaban a crearse entre ellas hábitos de pareja. Como los usos de un matrimonio” 2 “camioneras” 3 “¿Pero en realidad su deseo era un deseo de varón escondido en cuerpo de una mujer?” 4 “polizonte” and “tortillera” 5 “como si incubara en ella un temor inconsciente a ‘no estar’, a no ser reconocida como los demás” 6 “tampoco aspiro a una felicidad convencional, en cierto modo me siento una hereje” 7 “Sentía simpatía por toda herejía […] en cierto modo también ella se consideraba una hereje” 8 “le interesaba lo que se encontraba al otro lado de la Ley” 9 “Ella sentía toda la fuerza de la vida precisamente en contacto con ese subsuelo de parias y delincuentes” 10 “recordaba la angustia con la que tuvo que vivir cada uno de sus días de su matrimonio hasta que fue capaz de romper con todo eso y se atrevió a vivir su propio destino” 11 “estaba enamorado de Felicidad. Sabía que era un amor imposible” 12 “la más sofisticada tienda de lingerie de Biarritz, en la que Felicidad había surtido unos de sus más secretos encantos” 13 “la responsable del caso” 14 “a tus órdenes mi jefa” 15 “una tía como las demás” 16 “tirar la toalla y pedir un relevo en el caso a Busturia” 17 “Creo que es más fácil ser lesbiana siendo policía” 18 “El apartamento era tan pequeño que podían hablarse de una habitación a otra sin problemas” 19 “Nunca me hubiera imaginado a una policía en un lugar como éste, pensé que este tipo de sitios eran … santuarios frente a la autoridad, la ley, la moralidad pero veo que las cosas no son como me las imaginaba” 20 Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas Nº 2568.


WORKS CITED Berglund, Brigitte. “Desires and Devices: On Women Detectives in Fiction”. The Art of Detective Fiction. Eds Warren Cherniak, Martin Swales & Robert Vilain. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000: 138-152. Cixous, Hélène. La risa de la medusa. Madrid: Anthropos, 1995. Dollimore, Jonathan. Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. Oxford: OUP, 1991. Dunant, Sarah. “Body Language: a Study of Gender and Death in Crime Fiction”. The Art of Detective Fiction. Eds Warren Cherniak, Martin Swales & Robert Vilain. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000: 10-20. Humm, Maggie. Border Traffic Strategies for Contemporary Women Writers. Manchester: MUP, 1991. Irigaray, Luce. Ce sexe qui n’est pas un. Paris: Minuit, 1977. —. El cuerpo a cuerpo con la madre. Barcelona: La Sal, 1985. Klein, Kathleen Gregory. “Habeus Corpus: Feminism and Detective Fiction” Feminism in Women’s Detective Fiction. Ed. Glenwood Irons. Toronto: UTP, 1995: 171-189. Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. New York: CUP, 1974. —. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: CUP, 1982. Otaola, Javier. Brocheta de carne. San Sebastian: Hiria, 2003. Plain, Gillian. Twentieth Century Crime Fiction: Gender, Sexuality and the Body. Edinburgh: EUP, 2001. Porter, Dennis. The Pursuit of Crime: Art & Ideology in Detective Fiction. New Haven: YUP, 1981. Tomc, Sandra. “Questing Women: The Feminist Mystery after Feminism”. Feminism in Women’s Detective Fiction. Ed. Glenwood Irons. Toronto: UTP, 1995: 46-63. Whitlock, Gillian. “‘Cop it Sweet’: Lesbian Crime Fiction”. The Good, The Bad and The Gorgeous: Popular Culture’s Romance with Lesbianism. Eds. Diane Hamer and Belinda Budge. London: Pandora, 1994: 96-118. Wilton, Tamsin. Lesbian Studies: Setting An Agenda. London: Routledge, 1995. Wolfe, Susan J. & Julia Penelope. Sexual Practice/Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993. Zimmerman, Bonnie. “What has never been”. Sexual Practice/Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism. Eds Susan J. Wolfe & Julia Penelope. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, 33-54.

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