Book reviews by author Jeffrey Round
Dave Brandstetter, Insurance Claims Investigator—the welcome return of an iconic gay literary hero
More than fifty years after the publication of the first Dave Brandstetter book, Fadeout, and nearly twenty years after its author’s death, Joseph Hansen’s celebrated mystery series is being republished in an affordable format by Penguin Random House. This is great news, as the books had become hard to find or just got too expensive over the past decade.
Starting with Fadeout in 1970 and continuing on up to A Country of Old Men in 1991, Hansen produced twelve titles featuring his openly gay insurance claims investigator. Not your typical private eye, Brandstetter comes after you only if you file a claim for a suspicious death. Fadeout begins when a popular entertainer disappears and his family makes a death claim—only Dave doesn’t believe he’s really dead.
The books are remarkable for two things in particular: their precision in unfolding the mechanics of the mysteries and the casualness with which they present gay life, starting as long ago as the mid-1960s, when Fadeout was set. Hansen doesn’t ever apologize for or over-explain it—it just is. It’s one of the things that gives Brandstetter his moral credibility.
Nor does Hansen have qualms about letting Brandstetter age, unlike, say, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, noted as already being old after World War I and still going strong up until the 1970s. By contrast, Dave is in his 40s—lean and vital—in the early books, but in the later stories his mortality is showing. He rails against the indignities suffered in the course of his profession and the physical and emotional abuse he has experienced. Over the course of the series lovers come and go, his father dies, Dave changes companies and eventually retires—sort of. In other words, he’s real—like us—even if he isn’t.
For my taste, the earlier and later books are best. The middle titles tend to bloat with Hollywoodisms—unrealistic violence and preachiness. It’s as if Hansen had decided to write his own Die Hard series. The fifth book, Skinflick, features a religious zealot who steals hardcore pedophilia from an erotica bookstore (for his own use), all to make a point about religious hypocrisy rather than paint a realistic portrait of a bigot. (For starters, I find it hard to imagine such material being on open display, even in 1970s Los Angeles.) Similarly, the eighth book, The Little Dog Laughed, finds Dave embroiled in a Latin American coup. He all but puts on a cape to fight vice.
Hansen’s prose runs from smooth to overblown. At his best he was an adept poet, creating vivid atmospherics while giving a sense of the moral decay of contemporary California. On the downside, he had a tendency to over-describe Brandstetter’s surroundings in a way that accurately rendered physical detail but without breathing life into the prose. Nevertheless, in his later books he mastered and got beyond that. As a writer, he always seemed to be trying to do better.
An all-too-frequent weakness in Hansen’s plotting was his tendency to rely on coincidence—things happen easily for Dave. Minor characters are far too talkative when he comes calling: “Oh, sure—you want to know everything about my missing roommate? Come in and eat a quinoa salad with me while I spill the beans,” etc. (In the film industry, these are called “California scenes”—for obvious reasons.) As well, he didn’t always wrap up secondary plots. In the tenth book, Obedience, the mystery starts with a marina full of angry boat people facing eviction, but they are nowhere to be found once the killer is unmasked. It’s as if he doesn’t care about them past their use in helping Dave solve the crime.
Despite these qualms, at their best the mysteries are top-notch. Dave’s moral universe is always admirable and Hansen’s treatment of gay life exemplary. Many have said there were no positive gay role models in fiction in the 1970s. These books put the lie to that notion. In the years since their appearance, there has not been a more compelling series in gay literature. And that’s why I’m an unabashed fan of both Dave Brandstetter and his creator, Joseph Hansen.
Joseph Hansen was a renowned short-story writer and the author of more than twenty-five novels, including the Dave Brandstetter series. In 1992 he won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America and a Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Mystery for A Country of Old Men.
About the Author
Jeffrey Round is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and songwriter. His breakout novel, A CAGE OF BONES, was listed on AfterElton’s 50 Best Gay Books. LAKE ON THE MOUNTAIN, the first of seven Dan Sharp mysteries, won a Lambda Award in 2013. His latest book is the poetry collection THREADS from Beautiful Dreamer Press. His fifteenth novel, THE SULPHUR SPRINGS CURE, will be published by Cormorant books in 2024. www.jeffreyround.com