Ever since I was given my first Hardy Boys book, I've loved American crime fiction. In my younger years, I mulched my way through the canonical books of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, then moved on to the likes of Dorothy B. Hughes, Chester Himes, and Charles Willeford. I felt sure I'd read at least one book by everybody that's good.
I was wrong. I didn't know the work of Joseph Hansen. Back in 1970, Hansen began a series of 12 novels about an LA insurance investigator named Dave Brandstetter. The novels were something daring and new: featuring a tough guy detective who was also gay. Now in 2022, Soho Syndicate Books has just begun republishing the entire series, beginning with the first three – Fadeout, Death Claims and Troublemaker. Having just read them, I'm a bit embarrassed it took me so long to discover him.
Because the series progresses through time, you should start with the first one, Fadeout, which introduces us to Brandstetter, an honest, hard-nosed World War II vet. As the story begins, his company has sent him to the ranch town of Pima, Ariz., to investigate the case of a radio personality named Fox Olson who has disappeared after a mysterious automobile mishap. If he's committed suicide, they won't have to pay the insurance.
Naturally, Brandstetter is soon caught in the usual crime-story briar patch, where one murder leads to another and the key to everything lies hidden in the past. Just as naturally, the dogged Brandstetter must work his way through a whole range of potential killers, from Olson's hard-edged wife to the bullying local mayor whom Olson was hoping to unseat. And is Olson's adoring young assistant really as sweet as she seems?
Hansen unfolds all this with taut economy, yet he's equally deft in his handling of Brandstetter's private life. Unlike most crime writers, he makes his hero's personal life essential.
Fadeout has the confidence to treat Brandstetter's gayness matter-of-factly. We learn that he is mourning his longtime lover, a decorator, who has recently died; we see him go to a gay bar and hang out with his best friend, a lesbian named Madge who's overly susceptible to lovely young women; and we watch him being wooed by a cute young fella he just may sleep with. Through it all, Brandstetter displays the virile, no-nonsense romanticism of a Humphrey Bogart character.
Without ever hitting us over the head, Hansen reminds us that gay life is infinitely more varied than the insulting stereotypes that long dominated our culture, not least in the work of hard boiled crime writers. There's a great exchange in the novel Death Claims, when Brandstetter asks a young male suspect about his close friendship with another guy.
"Do I look like a f--?" the guy sneers.
"I don't know what a f-- looks like," Brandstetter replies. "And neither does anyone else."
You can't say it better than that.
Now, it would be an insult to Hansen to imply that his work is mainly of historical or sociological interest. Yes, Brandstetter is a groundbreaking figure. Yes, the plots sometimes turn on the psychic violence of being closeted. And yes, the series charts the changes in gay life over the years.
Yet, even if his books weren't trailblazing, Hansen would still be a terrific mystery writer. He's every bit as good a stylist as Ross Macdonald, with a similarly poetic eye for Southern California's defining blend of the sun-dazzled and the bleak. He populates his books with niftily sketched characters — from chirpy innkeepers and bellicose mechanics to fading movie stars and self-satisfied hippies.
And in Brandstetter, Hansen has created a hero worthy of such predecessors as Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Macdonald's Lew Archer. Smart, tough, witty and honorable, Dave Brandstetter is also too good to be true. But who cares? Hansen's a talented enough storyteller that, book after book, we're happy to walk down the mean streets in his company.