Most feminist and lesbian mystery works are not free of men, but male roles are generally reduced in significance or altered in function. In all cases, however, women emerge at the forefront, and male characters tend to appear in supporting, rather than leading, roles. On the other hand, men with significant roles to play are frequently the leading female characters’ antagonists; they tend to interfere with the women’s investigations. The women assume the duties of protagonists, characters who take actions to right wrongs or who see cases to their logical conclusions. In some works men assume traits traditionally associated with women and vice versa. Thus men might be portrayed as vulnerable and in need of protection, while strong, capable women come to their defense or rescue. However, some works eschew such easy gender reversals and instead further complicate what it means to be a woman or a man in contemporary society. Meanwhile, these gender issues play out against the same backdrops of deceit, murder, and mayhem that readers expect to find in works of mystery fiction.
In addition to incorporating traits inherent to the mystery genre, such as puzzling circumstances and crimes needing resolution, feminist mystery fiction also addresses social issues relevant to women’s lives. The appearance of women in traditionally male venues, such as police precincts or courts, is common. Equality under the law and in pursuit of justice takes on further significance when female detectives are penalized for being women. Such characters frequently battle not only the criminal elements, but also a hostile society that judges them inadequate, by virtue of their gender, for the tasks they undertake. Female sleuths must unravel the mysteries presented to them while circumventing social barriers and proving their detractors wrong. Often, they succeed in the former pursuit but fail in the latter.