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Remembering Joseph Hansen’s Groundbreaking Dave Brandstetter Series


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Fadeout, originally published in 1970, introduced Dave Brandstetter, an insurance investigator based in Los Angeles, in the first in a series of twelve crime novels the Los Angeles Times would hail as “groundbreaking” in the 2004 obituary of its author, Joseph Hansen. Why groundbreaking? They were beautifully written and dexterously plotted, but that wasn’t the reason. Brandstetter himself, rich, white and blessed with movie star good looks—a far cry from his hard luck noir predecessors like Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer—doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be much of a groundbreaker.

But the adjective is justified because Brandstetter is by nature what Marlowe and Archer were by temperament alone—an outsider and, in the context of the time, the ultimate outsider. Brandstetter, you see, is a homosexual (the word his creator used in preference to “gay,” a word he despised). A smart, masculine, competent, unapologetic homosexual and ace private investigator in an America where 49 of 50 states criminalized gay sex between consenting adults and the American Psychiatric Association deemed homosexuality a mental disorder. Simply by reason of his existence, Brandstetter was a potential felon and candidate for the looney bin. Can’t get much more outsider than that. And “groundbreaking”? In 1970, that may have been an understatement.

Fadeout, however, was not a novelty act, nor was Hansen a crude gay propagandist. At the time of its publication, he was an accomplished literary artist who had been writing, unnoticed, for decades. As he said in his own introduction to the 2004 edition of Fadeout, he was forty-six when Harper & Row accepted the book for publication and “I’d been writing all my life. The New Yorker and other good magazines had printed a few of my poems, but that was it so far as big time publishing went.” The poems he mentions were published in the early 1940s, when Hansen (born in 1923) was still a kid. Between those early successes and the publication of Fadeout were years in the literary desert where he was reduced to writing pulp gay fiction for fly-by-night small presses under the name James Colton.

His failure to achieve earlier the critical success the Brandstetter novels would bring him was due to his life-long insistence on writing openly and honestly about his experience as a gay (pace, Joe) man. The times were simply not ready for him. Those years were not, however, wasted. He honed his craft, bringing into his prose the precision and economy of a poet. An autodidact of the highest order, he consumed serious literature and learned from the masters how to write transparently, to practice, as the saying goes, the art that conceals art.

It is his art, ultimately, and not simply his subject matter, that makes Joseph Hansen one of the great masters of California noir. His subtle mastery is on full display in Fadeout.

Fadeout begins not with a murder, but with what might be an accidental death or an intentional disappearance. Fox Olson drives off a bridge in a storm, his car plunging into the river below. Olson has a big life insurance policy with Medallion Insurance. But Olson’s body has not been recovered and without proof of death, Medallion will not pay the claim. The company dispatches Dave Brandstetter, its best death claims investigator, to determine whether Olson is really dead. From the outset, Brandstetter is skeptical. His initial skepticism is based on the absence of physical evidence that Olson drowned. But Olson had no apparent reason to have staged the accident to disappear. Far from it. After decades of struggle as an unsuccessful writer, Olson has achieved enormous success as a Garrison Keillor-type radio personality. His wife, Thorne, who stood by him in the lean years, tells Brandstetter that Olson finally had everything he ever wanted and a man who has everything doesn’t decide one day to vanish.

The novel is set in “a California ranch town” called Pima, about three hours northeast of Los Angeles, somewhere near Fresno. It’s a town in transition, as so many California towns were in the late ’60s, when the state experienced a population growth spurt that brought new people and businesses into the sleepy agricultural hamlets of the central valley. But it remains a tightly knit community run by a few interconnected wealthy families. The Olsons returned to Pima, Thorne’s hometown, to take care of her ailing father, a prosperous rancher who disowned her after she married Fox. Thorne’s one-time suitor, who owns the local radio station, invites Fox to host a show where he plays guitar, sings and tells funny stories; the show becomes a smash success and offers pour in that will make him rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams. And then he’s gone.

Murder mystery writers are required to plant clues about both the identity of the murderer and their motive, but the masters also plant clues about the greater mysteries of all human motivation that, in the end, create morally complex and ambiguous stories in which the murder is only the tip of the iceberg. This is what Hansen does in Fadeout. Subtly but skillfully, often using the poet’s techniques of imagery and metaphor, he creates a sense of unease, of things not being what they seem, that begins with the novel’s opening paragraph.

It rained,” Hansen writes. “Not hard but steady and gray and dismal. Shaggy pines loomed through the mist like threats. Sycamores made white, twisted gestures above the arroyo. Down the arroyo water pounded, ugly, angry and deep.” A beautiful and powerful description of nature, of course, but there’s more to it than that. That handful of sentences is also a metaphor for the bleak moral atmosphere that pervades Fadeout, a novel where ugly secrets flow like the angry waters of the arroyo and characters are trapped in unhappy lives that are like the mute gestures of anguish made by the sycamores.

Those mournful images also clue the reader into Brandstetter’s state of mind. In an interview, Hansen once said that, while he admired Ross McDonald’s private eye, Lew Archer, “it bothered me that his detective never had any personal life, and he never changed.” The Brandstetter novels, beginning with Fadeout, rejected that convention and gave Brandstetter a complicated backstory.

In the opening scene of the novel, Brandstetter is carrying what seems to be a near-suicidal burden of grief. He drives across the bridge that Olson plunged off of “with sweating hands. Why so careful? Wasn’t death all he’d wanted for the past six weeks? His mouth tightened. That was finished. He’d made up his mind to live now. Hadn’t he?” A few pages later, he reveals the source of his grief: “Bright and fierce, he pictured again Rod’s face, clay-white, fear in the eyes, as he’d seen it when he found him in the glaring bathroom that first night of the horrible months that had ended in his death from intestinal cancer.”

The reader pauses: Wait. Rod?

Brandstetter is grieving the loss of his male lover of twenty years. In Chapter Six, we get the whole story in flashback. Brandstetter, recently discharged from the army at the end of World War II, enters a furniture shop on Western Avenue in Los Angeles to buy a bed. He sees, across the crowded room, as it were, a young salesman, short and dark, with a dazzling smile. “‘I want you,’ Dave thought and wondered if he’d said it aloud because the boy looked at him then, over the heads of a lot of other people. Straight at him. And there was recognition in the eyes, curious opaque eyes, like bright stones in a stream bed.” The young salesman, Rod Fleming, sells Brandstetter a ridiculous white wicker bed, which he ends up sharing with Brandstetter until his cruel, painful death six weeks before Fadeout begins.

Hansen would later write that part of his mission as a mystery writer was to send a message to straight readers that “homosexuals were pretty much like everyone else in the world, living as best they could, with their share of joy and sorrow, success and failure, love and loss.” He might have calculated that introducing the subject of Brandstetter’s homosexuality in the context of his grief at the death of his long-time partner would tempered straight readers’ biases and allowed them to turn the page instead of throwing the book across the room in disgust. But as is often the case in Fadeout, Hansen is working on multiple narrative levels here. Yes, this is a dramatic and moving lead into Brandstetter’s homosexuality, but it also introduces themes of loss and of opportunities missed and taken that become crucial to understanding Fox Olson’s story. And Olson’s story, not his disappearance, is the true mystery in the novel.

Hansen tells Fox Olson’s story through Brandstetter’s conversation with people who knew him, or thought they knew him, and what Brandstetter himself surmises about the man. It’s a brilliant technique that allows Hansen to reveal Olson’s secrets allusively, keeping the reader on the hook. For example, in the scene where Brandstetter is talking to Olson’s daughter, Gretchen, about his years as an unsuccessful writer, he asks her whether Olson was a good writer. Her hesitant reply: “He was a . . . good writer. But something was missing . . . It was always as though he was talking about the wrong thing.” Brandstetter asks, “How?” She replies: “Not what was really on his mind” She shook her head with a little puzzled smile. “As if there was something else he ought be talking about instead.” The reader is left to wonder, what was it, exactly, that he was avoiding in his writing?

In the same allusive vein is Hansen’s description of Thorne, Olson’s long-suffering wife. “The woman who opened [the door] was small, not much above five feet. Thin, fine-boned, in her early forties, like himself. Her hair was brown with some gray in it. She had cropped it, like a boy’s, smart and simple. Her hips were narrow as a boy’s and looked right in the brown corduroy Levi’s. She wore a brown checked wool shirt. No jewelry, no makeup except lipstick. She couldn’t have looked more feminine.”

This somewhat gender-bending portrait of Thorne Olson is more than an odd if vivid characterization. It serves the deeper narrative purpose of illuminating the central conflict in Fox Olson’s character. We later learn (spoiler alert here) that Olson’s boyhood lover, Doug Sawyer, was, physically, Thorne’s male equivalent. When Sawyer’s mother expresses surprise that Fox married, “Can’t imagine what kind of girl Fox would marry. Seems—well impossible,” Brandstetter tells her, “She’s small, dark and slender . . . Like your son.” That brief exchange illuminates the depth of Fox Olson’s loneliness and desperation. He has married, not out of love, but to hide his true nature even as his choice of a mate betrays the very longing he is trying to conceal. And at last we understand what it was that Fox Olson needed to, but could not, write about.

Also running through the book an implicit comparison between Brandstetter’s life as an out gay man and Olson’s life as a closeted one. Brandstetter’s grief is gut-wrenching but he comes by it honestly, having been true to his nature and partnered with another man whom he deeply loved and whose death he can openly mourn. He will recover. Olson, by contrast, chooses a life based on a lie that brings him untold sorrow and betrays those closest to him. For him, there’s no going back. What reader could possibly miss the point of the comparison?

Fadeout was a big risk for its publisher, Harper & Row, but it paid off. The book launched Hansen on his long career as a successful writer of crime fiction. Soon, he would be garnering the kind of reviews for which most writers would kill the family dog. The Los Angeles Times: “the most exciting and effective writer of the classic California private eye novel working today”; The New Yorker: “An excellent craftsman, a compelling writer”; The New York Times: “Hansen knows how to tell a tough, unsentimental, fast-moving story in an exceptionally urbane style”; The National Review (!): “After Ross McDonald, what? The smart money is now on Joseph Hansen.” In 1992, he would be given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Private Eye Writers of America.

Yet he never achieved the commercial success of, say, his contemporary Tony Hillerman, though to my mind he was a better and braver writer, and his books never won any of the other big mystery awards, the Edgar or the Anthony, for instance, though certainly they would have been eligible. There’s no great mystery why. At the time of Hansen’s death in 2004, only a bare majority of Americans believed gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should be legal (52% to 46% according to Gallup), while 60% adamantly opposed same-sex marriage (according to a Pew Institute poll). This demonstrates the deep and abiding bias against gay men, often expressed as a crude and visceral disgust, that prevailed during Hansen’s active years as a writer. The fact is that many straight readers would simply have refused to consider reading a book by a homosexual no matter what the critics said.

This same bias continues to affect Joseph Hansen’s critical reputation. Type into your browser “greatest noir mystery novels” and you’ll gets lots of lists, but not one of them includes a work by Joseph Hansen. That’s inexcusable. Joseph Hansen is not only one of America’s best mystery writers, he is a great American writer. Period. Full stop. In a better world, one liberated from its idiotic prejudices, he would be recognized as such. The republication of the Brandstetter novels by Syndicate Books is a hopeful sign that this marvelous writer will, at last, find the place he deserves in the pantheon of American literature.

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From Michael Nava’s introduction to FADEOUT by Joseph Hansen, reprinted by permission of the publisher, Syndicate Press. Copyright ©2022 by Michael Nava. All Rights Reserved.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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