July 19, 1923- Joseph Hansen toiled for years writing poetry & gay fiction using a nom de plume before jumping in to the mainstream detective genre with his shaggy, savvy private investigator Dave Brandstetter in Fadeout (1970).
Hansen claims it started when he decided to create:
“a compelling whodunit, but I also wanted to right some wrongs regarding homosexual characters.”
Truly tenacious in the tradition of the fictional Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade & Mike Hammer, Brandstetter was a decent dick on the deceptively sunny streets of Southern California, but when the case was solved, he preferred to go to bed with a guy, instead of a dame.
The first Brandstetter books were published at the peak of an early moment in the Gay Liberation movement, just a year after the Stonewall Riots in NYC’s Greenwich Village. In the company of the great Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Hansen became one of the few popular gay literary authors in the USA during that era, & he was almost alone in the category of Mystery books.
“Gay people have commonly been treated shabbily in Detective Fiction- vilified, pitied, at best patronized When I sat down to write Fadeout in 1967, almost all the news about homosexuals was false. So I had some fun turning clichés & stereotypes on their heads in that book. It was easy.”
Writing it may have been easy, but was publishing the novel was difficult. It took more than 3 years to find a publisher that would accept an unabashedly, unashamed gay sleuth without turning the story into a sensationalized account of his homosexuality. Pointedly, the Brandstetter series finishes with the protagonist having the same boyfriend for 22 years while his father has made his way through 9 marriages.
Hansen was praised by critics for making Brandstetter an intriguing & complex character. He did not turn the stories into political manifestos about Gay Rights. Instead, Hansen focused on a well-paced, heart-pounding mystery involving a man who just happens to have an eye for the guys.
Brandstetter was Hansen’s detective in 12 novels. The final installment of was A Country Of Old Men (1991), which placed his world-weary hero at nearly 70 years old in a post-HIV world. In the last novel, Brandstetter unsettles of his long-suffering lover with a reluctance to retire or quit cigarettes. In an unusual turn for the brand, Brandstetter turns down a hot young man’s come-on with the reply:
“I’m flattered… but my sleeping partner wouldn’t like it.”
Hansen, born in small town South Dakota, had his early poetry accepted by The New Yorker & other literary magazines. He co-founded the gay journal Tangents in 1965, produced an LA radio program titled Homosexuality Today in 1969, & along with early Gay Rights rabble-rouser & founder of the Radical Faeries, Harry Hay, he helped plan the very first gay pride parade in Hollywood in 1970.
Before his detective tales, Hansen wrote books under the name James Colton: Lost On Twilight Road (1964); Strange Marriage (1965); & Known Homosexual (1968). Always a fan of Mystery Fiction, he wrote Fadeout as an alternative to what he considered the crude literary style of Mickey Spillane but with a detective as open about his desires as Spillane’s own tough guy, Mike Hammer.
In the novel, Brandstetter investigates a popular Hollywood radio host who is presumed dead but who has conveniently taken out a $100,000 life insurance policy. When it was released by Harper & Row, Fadeout received a lot of publicity that made Hansen a sort of gay celebrity.
The other Brandstetter books included Early Graves (1987), about a killer of gay men with AIDS, which emphasized the hysteria that the disease caused, probably the first detective novel to include the issue.
Hansen received a Life Achievement award from the Private Eye Writers Of America in 1992.
Besides the poetry, Hansen wrote other detective series, & a bio of Don Slater, founder the early 1950s gay magazine One.
Hansen was married to artist Jane Bancroft for 51 years until her death in 1994. In a 2003 interview, he told Out Magazine that his wife was also gay & that they had an arrangement allowing them to have relationships with other people, provided they passed other person’s scrutiny.
“Jane was this remarkable person who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. So something was right about it, however bizarre it may seem to the rest of the world.”
The couple had a daughter who was transgendered & underwent a sex-change, Daniel James Hansen.
The David Brandstetter detective books are still in print from Allyson Publications & are also available as Complete Brandstetter: Twelve Novels from No Exit Press.
Hansen left this world, gone from a heart attack, at his home in Laguna Beach, the setting for most of the books.