Created by Joseph Hansen
Pseudonyms include Rose Brock & James Colton)
“My joke was to take the true hard-boiled character in an American fiction tradition and make him homosexual. He was going to be a nice man, a good man, and he was going to do his job well.”
— Joseph Hansen
“But with so many dying, we better love each other for real, and all we can — we’re so lucky to have the chance.”
— Cecil to Dave, in A Country of Old Men
In many ways a conventional P.I. — although officially he’s an insurance claims investigator — DAVE BRANDSTETTER makes for a particularly notable read because when he made his debut, in 1970’s Fadeout, he was one of the few convincing (male) gay characters in crime writing. And he’s still one of the most realistic and grounded.
What makes the Brandstetter books very good however, is the way they combine a compelling, well-written ‘whodunit’ with their evocation of 70’s and 80’s Southern California, particularly Los Angeles. Listen to this, from Fadeout:
“Fog shrouded the canyon, a box canyon above a California town called Pima. It rained. Not hard rain but steady and grey and dismal. Shaggy pines loomed through the mist like threats. Sycamores made white twisted gestures above the arroyo. Down the arroyo water poured, ugly, angry and deep. The road shouldered the arroyo. It was a bad road. The rains had chewed its edges. There were holes. Mud and rock half buried it in places. It was steep and winding and there were no guard rails.”
The fact that Joseph Hansen rewrote that passage thirty four times is typical of his writing style. Wonderfully descriptive of its Southern California settings — and in particular L.A.- in a way few before have been. Chandler and Ross Macdonald spring to mind. The books also have the kind of effortless dialogue (now ‘dialogue’ has become noticed with the resurgence of Elmore Leonard) that marks a great writer. Added to this there is the kind of characterisation that makes you want to know more and, well, “care.” Written without being patronising about everyday ‘gay life’, the books also recall Armistead Maupin’s Tales from the City. No doubt about it, this sort of writing makes for one of the best series in the genre.
Throughout the twelve books Brandstetter grows — quite literally into an old man — as he come to terms with the turmoil of his personal relationships. The emotional sub-text (as it were) of the books intertwines with the plot, the two often being resolved together. And what plots! Death Claims (1973), for example, sees Dave investigating the death of a bookseller who fought to stay alive to be with his lover. Dave’s own relationship is seriously foundering with the weight of his emotional baggage — his own unresolved grief for a dead lover — and resolving the ‘death claim’ is as much about the need to live and move on as anything. A memorable and satisfying book which is well worth re-reading. As is Early Graves (1987). Its subject is AIDS but seen as a metaphor for death, it is given a new significance and twist by Hansen’s handling of it.
And kudos should be given to Hansen for his deft handling of Dave’s long-term relationship with young, black TV reporter Cecil Harris with honesty and grace. It’s a believable and adult relationship, and that’s a rare enough thing, gay or straight, in detective fiction.
If one was to criticise the books it would be in the way that Hansen tries too hard to weld worthy themes onto his plots. Sometimes the result can come across as contrived. Obedience (1988), for example, fails for this reason.
However, given the fact the Brandstetter books are amongst the best “series” books you’re likely to come across, even if a times they appear to be somewhat neglected, you get an idea why they have built up a loyal following over the years.
The Los Angeles Times once called Hansen “the most exciting and effective writer of the classic private eye novel working today” and in 1992, he received The Eye, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America.
Hansen has also written a fine series of short stories featuring ex-deputy sherriff, and sometime-private eye Hack Bohannon. Under the name of Rose Brockman, he wrote romantic suspense novels.
THIS JUST IN (JULY 2018)
- Don’t get too excited, but Stephen McFeely & Christopher Markus (yeah, the Marvel Infinity War guys) have just nailed the option to Joseph Hansen’s amazing Dave Brandstetter P.I. novels. They talk about it at around 2:00:00 on this episode of Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman. (Thanks, Andrew)
LETTERS, WE GET LETTERS!
In November 2000, I received this:
Dear Mr. Smith,
It’s true, I am no youngster, but I am still writing. Since I wound up the Dave Brandstetter series with A Country of Old Men, I have published two non-mystery novels, Living Upstairs and Jack of Hearts and a number of short stories (in Ellery Queen’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s, and Mary Higgins Clark’s Mystery Magazines), as well as a brief memoir of my late friend, Don Slater, A Few Doors West of Hope, and a book of verse, Ghosts. Six crime stories of mine, including a couple featuring Hack Bohannon, appear this month in the book Blood, Snow, & Classic Cars. And I have just finished a novel, Stubblefields Galore, a sequel to Living Upstairs.
A friend of mine picked up and forwarded to me your piece on Rara-Avis when it was new, but didn’t know how to find it again. Another friend who is nimbler on the computer (and younger) was able to trace it (and your identity) for me yesterday. Hence this letter.
Naturally, I want to thank you for your kind words about my books, but also to correct your impression that I am not gay. A man may think as he pleases, but still must be careful what he says to strangers, in the case of the internet a vast number of strangers. That I am known to be homosexual is important to the viability of what I have spent a lifetime writing about in some 35 books, published all over the world. I do agree with you that it would be not just “interesting,” but passing strange if “Brandstetter was created by a straight author.
You might like to correct your misstatement on Rara-Avis. I’d appreciate that. And thanks again for writing so favorably about me and my work.
And I sheepishly replied…
Dear Mr. Hansen,
What can I say? In fact, what did I say? At this point, I’m not even sure why — or even if — I thought you weren’t gay. That original post to Rara Avis was posted over four or five years ago. But I regret the error.
I probably went on to explain that I discovered his books in the pre-internet eighties, when any information about an author was usually confined to a few skimpy lines in the back pages of whatever paperback I was reading, and at least a few of the editions I read in the early eighties did feature a bio mentioning a wife and child. And it never occured to me to doublecheck on an author’s sexual preferences when I started compiling the notes in the early nineties that would eventually form the foundation of this site. Or that it even mattered if he was gay or not. Which, in the long run, it doesn’t, of course. Great books are great books.
- “The trouble with life was, nobody ever got enough rehearsal.”
— Dave speculates inSkinflick
- “After 40 years Hammett has a worthy successor…”
— The Times (London)
- “… the most exciting and effective writer of the classic California private eye novel working today”
— The Los Angeles Times
- “… (an) excellent craftsman, a compelling writer”
— The New Yorker
- “Hansen knows how to tell a tough, unsentimental, fast-moving story in an exceptionally urbane style”
— The New York Times
- “After Ross McDonald, what? The smart money is now on Joseph Hansen.”
— The National Review
- “The Brandstetter stories develop strongly with a striking quality of measured calm…”
— Sunday Times
- “The first thing I ever read by Joseph Hansen was Fadeout (1970). It’s the seminal novel in a mystery series about a smart, tough, uncompromising insurance investigator by the name of David Brandstetter. He is a Korean War vet and ruggedly masculine. He’s educated, principled, compassionate — but willing and able to use violence when nothing else works. He represents the (then) new breed of PI — the post–World War II private investigator. There are no bottles of rye in Dave’s desk, there are no sleazy secrets in his past, and the dames don’t much tend to throw themselves at him. He is neither tarnished nor afraid. Oh, and one other thing. He’s gay…. He was not the first gay detective to hit mainstream crime fiction, but he was the first normal gay detective, and that — as the poet said — has made all the difference.”
— Josh Lanyon, from The Golden Age of Gay Fiction
- “If you want a solid P.I. series that owes more to Hammett than Chandler, check out Joseph Hansen’s mighty Dave Brandstetter series. Yeah, Dave’s gay, but oh, the writing! Taut, tight & terse. And grown-up hard-boiled as hell, without a speck of cereal.”
— Kevin Burton Smith (July 2018, Twitter)
- “First published over fifty years ago now, Hansen’s novels are not just clever and compelling stories, but to my mind they are also a feat of incredible bravery. I wish I’d discovered him sooner.”
— Russ Thomas (February 2021, CrimeReads)
- Fadeout (1970) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Death Claims (1973) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Troublemaker (1975)| Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of (1978) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Skinflick (1980) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Gravedigger (1982) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Nightwork (1984) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- The Little Dog Laughed (1986) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Early Graves (1987) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Obedience (1988) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- The Boy Who Was Buried This Morning (1990) | Buy this book | Buy the audio
- A Country of Old Men (1991) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- “Surf” (January 1976, Playguy)
- “Election Day” (November 1984, EQMM)
- Brandstetter and Others” (1984) | Buy this book
Includes both Brandstetter stories.
- The Complete Brandstetter (2007) | Buy this book
This already hard-to-find Brit import from No Exit finally collects ALL 12 novels.
- What Were Once Vices…
Gay and Lesbian Eyes
- Gay Noir Pioneer
Michael Nava looks back on Hansen’s life and art with reverence and respect… and a critical eye. (May 2019, Los Angeles Review of Books)
- “Changing Hearts and Minds: A Conversation with Joseph Hansen”
William Harry Harding interview the author (Holiday 2002, Mystery Scene)