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Remembering Joseph Hansen: Father of the Gay Mystery Novel

James Sherman, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Joseph Hansen
Joseph Hansen

“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.”

— Joseph Hansen, quoted in The Mystery Novel As Serious Business

Thanks to his Dave Brandstetter mystery series, Joseph Hansen’s entry in American Hard-Boiled Crime Writers states unequivocally that he’s the “Father of the gay mystery novel”. While that’s not exactly true—George Baxt’s Pharoah Love comes to mind as the first to be acclaimed—Hansen’s series falls evenly into the tradition of hardboiled Southern California detectives imagined by Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald: a tough, stoic, competent detective. Who also, at least in the case of Dave Brandstetter, happens to be gay. Such was the tenor of the times (two years before the Stonewall riots) that just presenting a protagonist who was straight-forwardly gay was near revolutionary. C. Todd White, a historian of the gay rights movement in Los Angeles, noted that the Brandstetter character "never wanted to flaunt his sexuality. All he wanted was for justice to be served, and he wanted to find love in his life. He was painfully normal in that regard."*

Hansen also played against hard-boiled expectations by presenting a more personal side to his otherwise businesslike gumshoe. In an interview, Hansen “recalled that he admired the mysteries of Ross Macdonald, "but it bothered me that his detective never had any personal life, and he never changed." The importance of the detective’s personal life, trying to deal with loss, aging and loneliness, expanded the psychological dimension of the hardboiled genre while offering genre enthusiasts a gay man’s point of view. In the first novel, Fadeout (1967), Dave Brandstetter has lost his longtime partner to cancer and is completely bereft, and only his duty to his work at his father’s insurance investigation outfit pulls him back into the land of the living. On the job, Brandstetter betrays nothing of his personal life that might interfere with his mission, which is to find what happened to Fox Olson, a popular radio personality. Brandstetter is detached, professional, and unsentimental, with an excellent eye for reading character. Undermining stereotypes is done as a matter of course. As stated in Hansen’s Dictionary of Literary Biography entry:

“Whereas the heterosexual characters commit adultery, blackmail, bribery, embezzlement, and murder, the gay lovers appear as decent, kind, and faithful--a deliberate reversal of conventional ‘clichés and popular misconceptions.’”

As just one example of this, Brandstetter’s father is a fickle philanderer and thus has little to offer his son who is recovering from the loss of a long-term partner. Furthermore, in the plotting of the mysteries, Hansen turns the exploitational idea of tragic gay stereotypes on its head. For instance, in Fadeout, as Brandstetter starts asking questions, he learns that the supposedly straight Fox Olson had a male lover, who is soon the prime suspect in a murder—which would be right in line with typical exploitative and sensational treatment of gay characters. But Brandstetter digs deeper and learns that the murderer is... (Spoiler Alert)... an Olson family member who needs the insurance money.

In treating Brandstetter’s character as a human being, Hansen doesn’t shy away from describing the highs and lows of his relationships: “Brandstetter's serial relationships with men, from hunky young things to older, wiser soul mates, are openly and unabashedly described in each of his novels, with honesty and tenderness at times, with exasperation and despair at others.”—A Queer Eye on the Mean Streets

Born in South Dakota but reared in Altadena, Hansen attended Pasadena Junior College (now Pasadena Community College) where he was introduced to the world of literature, which gave him the courage to be himself: “Whitman’s manly ease with his sexuality eased my worries, and Emerson’s Self Reliance urged me to be myself, no matter what the world might think.” Hansen embraced his identity and began a relationship with director Ben Ali, who was affiliated with the Pasadena Playhouse. Thus was young Hansen introduced to the cultural life of Los Angeles, as well as the works of famous writers and poets. Hansen got his start writing poetry, with an early submission published by the New Yorker—in fact, poetry was his true love**.  Hansen’s fiction efforts were first published in Los Angeles-based ONE Magazine, the first pro-gay publication in the US, under pseudonyms, as well as pulp writings of gay erotica.

It was natural then to bring his identity to his foray into genre fiction. "When I sat down to write Fadeout in 1967, I wanted to write a good, compelling whodunit, but I also wanted to right some wrongs," he said. "Almost all the folk say about homosexuals is false. So I had some fun turning clichés and stereotypes on their heads in that book. It was easy."

In the same way that the mystery novels of Wahloo and Sjowall can be read as one long book about Swedish society in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Brandstetter series can be read as one long chronicle of gay lives in California in the 1970’s and 1980’s as well as the general social concerns of those decades.  For instance, Death Claims (1973) is about surviving the death of a lover. In Troublemaker (1975), Brandstetter investigates the murder of the owner of a gay bar. In Early Graves (1987), he returns to work to find the serial killer targeting men who have AIDS.

In his masterful tribute to Hansen in the Los Angeles Review of Books, critic, and historian Bill Mohr points out: “In probing the layered emulsions of Brandstetter’s travails as a "widowed" gay man—having lost his long-time lover to cancer and trying to find a way to recuperate in a hostile society—Hansen demonstrated, long before the battle for gay marriage, that relationships between homosexuals who love each other are as complicated in their enduring intimacy as heterosexual commitments. Hansen’s fiction enables his readers, both gay and straight, to encounter the internal dialectic of a social movement.”

Hansen was always active in Gay Rights Movement: he was co-founder of the influential gay publication Tangents (which was a progeny of ONE Magazine) in 1965; in 1969, he produced “Homosexuality Today”, a radio program on KPFK; and he also helped plan the first Gay Pride Parade in Hollywood in 1970.  Perhaps guided by Emersonian self-reliance with which he kept his own counsel, he didn’t fit well into the evolving gay rights movement, preferring the label “homosexual” over “gay.”  He was also quite open with his opinions about the gay rights movement—opinions that were unlikely to win friends. In GayToday he stated:

“Way back before Stonewall, I was saying in the tiny gay magazines of those times that what we should strive for was inclusion in a society that had long shut us out. "Us and Them" is a lousy way to build a world. And I'm still not big on the idea of gay this, gay that, and gay the other.”

Hansen also remained deeply in love with his wife, Jane Bancroft, a teacher and translator, for 51 years, a lesbian with whom he had a child and shared an arrangement to have same-sex lovers. "Here was this remarkable person who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with," he said of his wife. "So something was right about it, however bizarre it may seem to the rest of the world.” Certainly, this situation was difficult for many in the gay community to understand, such as admirer Bruce Shenitz, Executive Editor of Out magazine. Yet Shenitz also stated in a heartfelt remembrance after Hansen’s death: “I imagine he would not have been an easy person to know well, or over a long period of time. But I also imagine that he was someone that you’d want on your side waging a fight. Which is something he did for us, as gay people. Though he sometimes took issue with ‘the gay community,’ he contributed immeasurably to the very possibility of its existence.”

Certainly, Hansen was most influential on gay mystery authors in a way that the sensationalism of Baxt’s Pharoah Love was not. Mystery writer John Morgan Wilson, the Edgar-winning author of the Benjamin Justice mystery series set in West Hollywood, considered Hansen "the most important pioneer in gay mystery writing." Hansen’s gift intertwines the personal and the professional, and he spins entertaining mysteries that evoke well the fading light of times past in Southern California. As Michael Nava, author of a mystery series featuring gay attorney Henry Rios, points out "Not that (Hansen) was just a good gay writer," Nava said, "but he is right up there with Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald in terms of being one of the great California mystery writers."

A Selection of Books by Joseph Hansen

Book cover for Fadeout: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Fadeout: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Hansen, Joseph, 1923-2004.

Book cover for Death claims: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Death claims: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Hansen, Joseph, 1923-2004.

Book cover for Troublemaker: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Troublemaker: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Hansen, Joseph, 1923-2004.

Book cover for The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Hansen, Joseph, 1923-2004.

Book cover for Skinflick: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Skinflick: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Hansen, Joseph, 1923-2004.

Book cover for Gravedigger: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Gravedigger: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Hansen, Joseph, 1923-2004.

Book cover for Obedience: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Obedience: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Hansen, Joseph, 1923-2004.

Book cover for Pretty Boy Dead
Pretty Boy Dead
Hansen, Joseph, 1923-2004.

Book cover for The Little Dog Laughed
The Little Dog Laughed
Hansen, Joseph, 1923-2004.

* pg 107, Pre-gay L.A.: A Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights, by C. Todd White.

** ”Of all the writers who contributed to the LA poetry renaissance in the second half of the 20th century, Joseph Hansen probably gave the most and got the least in return. Most significantly, Hansen was one of the co-founders of the Beyond Baroque poetry workshop, a free and open-to-the-public gathering that has met on Wednesday evenings in Venice for 45 years. Along with John Harris, Hansen established an accessible public workshop with serious standards of literary excellence. The fact that Hansen won a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship for his fiction a couple of years after starting the workshop only reinforced his stature as the workshop’s standard-bearer. And thanks in part to his commitment to helping others become better writers, the Beyond Baroque workshop’s alumni include such poets as Wanda Coleman, Leland Hickman, Harry Northup, and Exene Cervenka, as well as noteworthy novelists Jim Krusoe and Kate Braverman…Surely no other major mystery writer has played such an important role in the maturation of another literary genre in a major American city. Then again, few mystery writers were also poets as accomplished as Hansen.”—Bill Mohr