A TRIBUTE TO JOSEPH HANSEN [1923-2004]
JOSEPH HANSEN - Reviews by Marcia Muller
BRANDSTETTER AND OTHERS (Foul Play Press; 1984).
Joseph Hansen is best known for his novels about insurance investigator David Brandstetter. The books are notable in that the detective is a homosexual, but this is no mere gimmick: Brandstetter is a deeply characterized individual, a compassionate and caring man who is sometimes obsessively dedicated to uncovering the truth about the unusual deaths he is called in to verify. If the series has a flaw, it is that most of Brandstetter’s cases have roots in the concealment of homosexuality, or involve a great number of gay witnesses – a fact that may strain the reader’s credulity. On the other hand, it may be said that Brandstetter’s sexual orientation makes him more aware of homosexual overtones than a straight investigator would be. And Hansen (who has stated that in creating his detective he set out to “right some wrongs. Almost all the folksay about homosexuals is false.”) handles his plots well and characterizes people realistically on the full range of both the gay and straight spectra. For this reader, that more than overcomes what at times seems like too great a coinicidence.
There are two Brandstetter stories in this collection (Hansen’s first): “Election Day” and “Surf.” Both are rich in the southern California background that characterizes the detective novels; and in comparing the two, the reader can observe considerable development in Brandstetter’s character – from the less developed protagonist of “Surf” (1976) to the multidimensional hero of “Election Day” (1984). In addition to these stories featuring his series sleuth, Hansen also gives us “The Anderson Boy,” a haunting tale of how a man’s past can catch up and threaten to destroy him.
FADEOUT (Harper & Row; 1970)
Fadeout, the first of the Brandstetter novels, opens with the detective grieving over the loss of his lover by cancer. Dave and Rod had shared a not always idyllic life for twenty years; now Dave is faced with all the attendant regrets that death brings, and only his work can relieve them.
The death claim he is investigating is of an accident where no body has been recovered. Radio star Fox Olson supposedly drowned in a flooded arroyo, but Brandstetter quickly begins to suspect that the insured has engineered his own disappearance – a theory that Olson’s wife, Thorne, disputes. After a lifetime of failure, Olson had become a success; he had an up-and-coming recording career, the material possessions he’d always dreamed of, a loving a supportive wife, and a possible political career. Why, Thorne asks, would such a man want to disappear? Brandstetter doesn’t know, but he begins to dig into Olson’s life with the dogged patience that characterizes his investigations.
He quickly finds out that Thorne Olson has been having an affair with Hale McNeil, owner of the radio station on which Fox had his show. Mayor Chalmers of the town of Pima was Olson’s political rival, and there are rumors that he planned to kidnap Fox and hold him until after the election. A houseboy named Ito, hired by Thorne as a Christmas Day surprise for Fox, was fired for no good reason after only twenty-four hours. When Brandstetter interviews Olson’s daughter, Gretchen, she seems “damn cheerful for a new orphan.” And from Gretchen’s husband’s crippled brother, Buddy, Brandstetter learns that an old friend of Fox’s, known to him only as Doug, had recently returned after living in France for many years.
As Brandstetter pieces together clues from both the past and the present, he begins to come to terms with his own personal loss; and in the solution to his investigation, he also finds a key to his own future. This is an extremely strong beginning to a series, richly characterized, with memorable depictions of its southern California settings.
NIGHTWORK (Holt, Rinehart & Winston; 1984)
Gifford Gardens is a decaying residential area near Los Angeles, dominated by the equally run-down Gifford mansion. Youthful gangs roam the streets, and the people feel powerless to stop them. Brandstetter shares their feelings of helplessness when he goes to the area to investigate the death claim of a trucker who lived there: While he is interviewing the dead man’s family, a group of young men smash the windshield of his Jaguar; the police arrive quickly, called by DeWitt Gifford, who watches over his declining domain from his tower window, but they can only advise Brandstetter not to drive such an expensive car into the area.
Thus Brandstetter finds the Gardens an enclave of fear: fear of the street gangs, fear of poverty, and fear in the blackened eyes of the dead man’s wife. What seems a routine accident has turned into a homicide with the sheriff’s discovery of an explosive device attached to the bottom of the trucker’s rig. The wife has been beaten, but she refuses to tell Brandstetter who did it or why. She does give him enough information, however, that he begins to suspect the “nightwork” (overtime trucking) he husband was dong was something out of the ordinary.
With the help of his lover and associate, Cecil Harris, Brandstetter traces the widow of another trucker who was doing nightwork before his sudden death. She is more talkative than the first widow, and she tells him that her husband took sick suddenly and refused to call his own doctor. Her information leads him to a Dr. Kretschmer, a mysterious woman known only as the Dutchess; and a household of unexpected guests, including three boisterous little boys. When Brandstetter finally reaches the end of his investigation, he has uncovered a number of crimes and solved a murder whose motive is at the same time socially relevant and intensely personal.
This novel says a great deal about contemporary society and contains an excellent depiction of a severely depressed area and the residents trapped within it.
TROUBLEMAKER (Harper & Row; 1975)
In Troublemaker Hansen explores various aspects of the gay life in greater detail than in any other novel in the series to date. In reality there are two troublemakers: the killer of gay-bar owner Rick Wendell, and Kovaks, the potter who lives downstairs from Brandstetter and is trying to break in on his relationship with live-in lover Doug Sawyer. As in other novels, Hansen expertly intertwines the professional thread with the personal one, giving an in-depth depiction of his protagonist as a man as well as a detective.
Brandstetter’s case begins when he interviews Rick Wendell’s mother at her horse ranch in one of the canyons above Los Angeles (a setting that Hansen has used to good effect elsewhere). Heather Wendell insists that Larry Johns, the young man arrested for her son’s shooting, is Rick’s murderer, but Brandstetter remains unconvinced, Johns has claimed he was in the bedroom when Rick was shot in his sitting room, and that he heard another man talking to him out there before the shot. This must be resolved before Medallion Life can pay out on Rick’s policy – money his mother badly needs – because there is a slim chance that Rick took his own life, and a slimmer one that his mother killed him, since Heather’s prints are the only ones on the gun.
From the horse ranch, Brandstetter goes to the home of Ace Keegan, Rick’s business partner in the Hang Ten Bar. Ace has a young boy whom he is grooming for the “Mr. Marvelous” contest (sponsored by the local bars) staying there, and he tells Brandstetter that Rick was also interested in young men – who often took him fro large sums of money. When Brandstetter asks if that could possibly account for the $1500 he has discovered missing from Rick’s personal effects, Keegan becomes reticent. Leaving Keegan, Brandstetter widens his search to include Larry Johns’s friends, and before long he has uncovered a secret in Johns’s past: his wife, Jomay; baby Beebee; and “Uncle” Dwayne Huncie, a “turnip-nosed old son of a bicth” lawyer who specializes in tracking down errant husbands – and then holding them up for large sums of money.
From the tangles web of these people’s lives, Brandstetter begins to put together the scenario of what happened the night Rick Wendell was shot, and his case finally comes together the night of the Mr. Marvelous contest at the Big Barn, L.A.’s largest gay bar. But his case does not end there, because now he must prevent another murder.
This novel has a well-constructed plot, with plenty of red herrings and cleverly concealed clues. Hansen depicts the gay community of L.A. and vicinity – from the wealthy architect’s house to Brandstetter’s comfortable (albeit threatened) home to the sleazy waterfront bars in the community of Surf – with understanding and compassion, making it possible for both the gay and straight reader to empathize with his very real characters.
Another notable Brandstetter novel, Death Claims (1973), has a background of the rare-book business. In Gravedigger (1982), Brandstetter investigates a supposed murder by the guru of a sex cult. Other titles are The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of (1978) and Skinflint (1979.)
These reviews first appeared in 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction. Copyright © 1986 by Marcia Muller; reprinted by permission.
REMEMBERING JOSEPH HANSEN - by Divers Hands.
JON BREEN: I didn’t know Joseph Hansen well, but well enough to learn that, aside from being one of the finest mystery novelists of the past few decades, he was a classy individual. Back in the middle 1980s, John Ball and I were editing an anthology, Murder California Style, for the the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America. As once was true (but is no longer) of the national MWA anthologies, this was strictly a benefit performance: the editors were not paid, and members were asked to donate their stories for the good of the organization. We asked several of the big-name members, Hansen and others, for contributions and sent out an open cattle call for lesser-known members to offer submissions. Most let us have previously published stories for reprint, but Joe Hansen actually wrote his second Hack Bohannon novella, “Snipe Hunt,” specifically for our anthology – as it happened, he also sold it to EQMM, where it appeared first, but our book was the impetus. Somewhere in the editing process, the manuscript was mislaid, and I had the embarrassing duty of asking Hansen for another copy. He was totally understanding and “not the least bit upset,” though he did ruminate that getting a word processor (which he had been resisting – this was 1985) would have the advantage of allowing him to run another copy in house and not save a trip by him or his wife to the copy shop.
As for Hansen’s fiction, the Dave Brandstetter novels are of course first-rate examples of the Ross Macdonald school, with the added distinction of introducing the first realistic gay sleuth to the mainstream mystery publishing world. But my favorite of his novels is outside the series: Living Upstairs (1993), with its vivid evocation of World-War-II Los Angeles.
ED GORMAN: Over the years we (Marty Greenberg & I) bought several Joseph Hansen stories for our various reprint anthologies. I think we bought a few originals, too (all this relies on my fading memory). Hansen usually dealt with Marty. But Marty was on the road for several days one time so Hansen called me. I’d never spoken to him but he seemed like a very decent guy.
He said he was getting pretty hard up for work and would be interested in anything we could send his way. I think it was then I said, “Let’s do a Five Star collection, and I’ll get you into a couple of anthologies, too.” Marty, the kindest person I've ever known, ordered a check sent immediately. We also paid him for some reprints we’d use in the future.
He called again to thank me and said he could still use some more work if any came my way. So I said why don't you write some Mystery Scene pieces. He did, as I recall, one or two long ones but I sent him a check the same day we talked. (But as you can imagine, Mystery Scene could buy you a couple bowls of soup and all the crackers you could steal.)
He was obviously pretty sick but he met every single deadline. He e-mailed me about a trunk partial (or maybe it was finished) he wanted to see if Five Star might go for. But it got into areas we just couldn’t go. He laughed sadly and said that that’s the same thing something like seventeen other houses had told him. I believe he also said that it had been bounced by all his regular houses in Europe. Damned sad to see somebody that good have to scramble so hard at the end of his life.
BILL CRIDER: When Fadeout, Joseph Hansen’s first novel featuring Dave Brandstetter, was published, I bought the Bantam paperback edition. I really had no idea what I was getting, and I have to admit that I was a little surprised when I read the book. I was living in Brownwood, Texas, at the time, and books about gay private-eyes weren’t exactly the kind of thing you usually picked up off the rack at the local drugstore, which is where I bought my copy. I was immediately struck by the quality of the writing, and I read all the succeeding books in the series as they appeared, right up to the final one, A Country of Old Men, which might have been the best of the lot, or which might have gained a lot of its emotional effect simply be being the final book of the series.
I had no idea at the time I was reading the books whether Hansen was gay or not. I didn’t think about it very much. I was just interested in the books themselves, and at that time authors’ personal lives weren’t quite the topic of discussion that they sometimes are today. And the books were good ones. Clean prose, great sense of place, good characters, and a tough but likeable protagonist who just happened to be gay. Hansen wasn’t the first to introduce a gay character into a mystery. That might have been George Baxt with A Queer Kind of Death, published several years before Fadeout. But Hansen’s novels, because of the writing and because of the kind of guy Dave Brandstetter was, were the ones that caught on with readers.
Hansen’s death doesn’t seem to have caused much of a stir, but I think he’ll be remembered not only for being a pioneer but for being one of the better writers in the mystery genre during the last quarter of the twentieth century.
MIKE NEVINS: Joseph Hansen entered the PI field at the same time that Ross Macdonald’s novels were hitting the New York Times bestseller lists, and there seemed to be an unwritten law that every new PI character had to be a variant on Macdonald’s protagonist the female Lew Archer, the black Lew Archer, whatever. By creating an Archer variant who was homosexual, Hansen contributed hugely to making gay protagonists respectable in crime fiction. I read his first few Brandstetter novels decades ago, and while I haven’t followed him regularly since, he blazed trails for others to follow, and he will be missed.
MARV LACHMAN: Shortly after hearing Joseph Hansen give a moving talk at a Bouchercon (I think it was 1976), I read the first Dave Brandstetter novel and found it to be a good, solid private eye novel, although Brandstetter is actually a claims investigator for an insurance company. (Having worked for an insurance company in Los Angeles many years ago, I know that Brandstetter doesn’t function like a typical investigator, but then he can do what he wants because his father has such an important position in the company.)
Hansen’s talk asked that homosexuals be treated as anyone else, without regard to their sexual orientation. He practiced what he preached in his books, and Brandstetter was reminiscent of many tough, but caring, private eyes. Later books were notable for Brandstetter’s understandable emotions during the AIDS epidemic.
More memorable – and less well known – is Hansen’s short story series about Hack Bohannon, a combination private eye and horse ranch owner. Hansen provides some very good regional writing about Central California. The plots are tighter, and the cast of supporting characters more interesting than in Hansen’s novels.
By being the first writer to create an important gay detective, Hansen left his mark on detective fiction, as well as leaving behind much good fiction. He also accomplished his goal of promoting acceptance of people previously derided in mystery fiction.
RICHARD MOORE: Joseph Hansen was an experienced writer well into his 40s when the first Dave Brandstetter novel Fadeout appeared in 1970. The novel was written in 1967 (Hansen said the delay was due to the homosexual background) just a year after George Baxt published A Queer Kind of Death, which featured a black, homosexual detective Pharaoh Love. In a 1984 article in The Armchair Detective, Hansen noted that Love was “far from being a hero.” While not saying outright that he created Brandstetter in response to Love, Hansen did write that he “…set out to write about a decent, upright, caring kind of man, though a man without illusions, a tough-minded veteran insurance investigator who was, as The New Yorker remarked ‘thoroughly and contentedly homosexual.’”
As a reader who came to the series early, for me there was a certain fascination of entering an unknown world with several conventions turned on their ears. Quickly, however, the mild titillation was replaced with an understanding of and warmth for Dave Brandstetter. He was very competent in his work, dedicated to seeking a certain “rightness” in the world that made him to my mind as worthy a fictional knight as Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer.
I enjoyed Brandstetter’s company and cared about him as he aged gracefully through the two decades of the series. While I love some static series, such as the world that Nero and Archie inhabit, there is a special feeling for the series where the personal life of the hero unfolds from novel to novel. For example, I recall worrying about Bill Pronzini’s “Nameless” character as we all awaited news on whether he had lung cancer or not.
With Brandstetter, readers had to adjust to changing boyfriends, but most of all, with the suspense of whether he would live to enjoy true retirement. For Brandstetter aged far beyond the norm for a hero, going deep into his 60s to the point he began to worry (with reason) about his failing physical and mental abilities. His long-time boyfriend Cecil, a much younger African-American television reporter, was after him in novel after novel to retire. Cecil, I admit, first struck me as a twit, but I gradually became fond of him. Unlike many other detective “love interests,” Cecil was also capable of heroic deeds that would save Brandstetter’s life. Hansen also enjoyed the contrast of Brandstetter’s father jumping from wife to wife while his son Dave was basically monogamous.
Ultimately, what remains in the memory about the series is the character of Brandstetter, a very capable fellow, admirable in so many ways, for who the reader feels great warmth. Brandstetter is so competent, so together, that I love and admire him without completely identifying with him. It reminds me of my feeling towards Conway in Lost Horizon – I love the guy and root for him but recognize he is operating on a different level.
Where the Brandstetter series is the weakest is in the plotting. Some novels are needlessly complicated, and events begin to happen for no reason other than to move the plot along. It was character, not plot that was always foremost in Hansen’s thoughts with Brandstetter. His later series of novelettes featuring ex-sheriff Hack Bohannon (of which I am very fond) may have featured Hansen plotting at his best.
But creating a believable character was the ultimate achievement. As Hansen wrote in “The Mystery Novel As Serious Business” (The Armchair Detective, Summer 1984):
“The point of fiction is to give the reader for a few hours the chance to be somebody else, to broaden and deepen his understanding of himself and the strangers among whom he has to pass his days. The best novels do this now as they have always done it. It is a noble thing.”
It is, indeed, and Joseph Hansen achieved that level more than most, and it was noble indeed.
JOSEPH HANSEN - A Bibliography, compiled by Steve Lewis.
Crime fiction only. DB = Dave Brandstetter; HB = Hack Bohannon.
1970. Fadeout. Harper & Row [DB]
1973. Death Claims. Harper & Row [DB]
1975. Troublemaker. Harper & Row [DB]
1978. The Man Everyone Was Afraid Of. Holt, Rinehart & Winston [DB]
1979. Skinflick. Holt, Rimehart & Winston [DB]
1982. Gravedigger. Holt, Rinehart & Winston (February) [DB]
1982. Backtrack. Foul Play Press (October)
1984. Nightwork. Holt, Rinehart & Winston (March) [DB]
1984. Brandstetter and Others: Five Fictions. Foul Play Press. [story collection]
– The Anderson Boy
– Election Day (also published separately, Foul Play Press, 1984) [DB]
– Surf [DB]
– The Tango Bear [HB]
– Willow’s Money
1985. Steps Going Down. Foul Play Press
1986. The Little Dog Laughed. Henry Holt & Co [DB]
1987. Early Graves. Mysterious Press [DB]
1988. Bohannon’s Book: Five Mysteries. Foul Play Press. (March) [story collection]
– Death of an Otter [HB]
– Merely Players [HB]
– Snipe Hunt [HB]
– The Tango Bear [HB]
– Witch’s Broom [HB]
1988. Obedience. Mysterious Press (November) [DB]
1990. The Boy Who Was Buried This Morning. Viking Press. [DB]
1991. A Country of Old Men: The Last Dave Brandstetter Mystery. Viking Press [DB]
1993. Bohannon’s Country. Viking Press. [story collection]
– An Excuse for Shooting Earl [HB]
– McIntyre’s Donald.
– Molly’s Aim
– The Olcott Nostrum [HB]
– The Owl in the Oak [HB}
2000. Blood, Snow and Country Cars: Mystery Stories. Leyland Publications [story collection]
– Blood, Snow and Country Cars
– An Excuse for Shooting Earl [HB]
– Molly’s Aim.
– Home Is the Place [HB]
– Son of the Morning.
2002. Bohannon’s Women: Mystery Stories. Five Star [story collection]
– Storm Damage [HB]
– Widower's Walk [HB]
– Confessional [HB]
– Survival [HB]
– Home Is the Place [HB]
– Widdershins [HB]
Gothic crime novels written as by ROSE BROCK:
1971. Tarn House. Avon, paperback. The only hardcover edition was British: Harrap, 1971. No description found.
1974. Longleaf. Harper & Row, hardcover. Historical suspense novel: “A search for identity and a hidden fortune.” No paperback edition.
Short Stories [DB] -
* “Surf” (January 1976, Playguy, as ??; December 1976, Mystery Monthly, as “Murder on the Surf”)
* “Election Day” (November 1984, EQMM)
Short Stories [HB] -
* “The Tango Bear” (mid-December 1984, EQMM)
* “Snipe Hunt” (February 1985, EQMM)
* “Witch's Broom” (December 1986, AHMM)
* “Merely Players” (February 1987, AHMM)
* “Death of an Otter” (October 1987, AHMM)
* “The Olcott Nostrum” (December 1987, AHMM)
* “The Owl in the Oak” (March 1988, AHMM)
* “An Excuse for Shooting Earl” (September 1992, AHMM)
* “Storm Damage” (November 1992, AHMM)
* “A Woman's Voice” (September 1993, AHMM)
* “Survival” (October 1998, AHMM)
* “Confessional” (Fall 1998, MHCMM)
* “Home is the Place” (January 2000, EQMM)
* “Widower's Walk” (January 2000, AHMM)
* “Widdershins” (Summer 2000, MHCMM)
Short Stories [Non-series] -
* “The Anderson Boy” (EQMM, September 1983)
* “Mourner” (EQMM, October 1983; first appearance, 1979?) [uncollected]
* “Molly’s Aim” (EQMM, June 1989)
* “McIntyre’s Donald” (Bohannon’s Country, June 1993)
* “A Woman’s Voice” (AHMM, September 1993)
* “Blood, Snow and Classic Cars” (AHMM, April 2001) [Appeared first in the collection of the same name.]
Awards Presented to Joseph Hansen:
* Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Mystery from the Lambda Literary Foundation for A Country of Old Men: The Last Dave Brandstetter Mystery (1991) .
* Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America (1992)
Allen J. Hubin, Crime Fiction IV
YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME. stevelewis62 (at) cox.net
This tribute first appeared in Mystery*File #47, February 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Steve Lewis. All rights reserved to contributors.
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