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 he is in fact an insurance claims investigator - DAVE BRANDSTETTER makes for an interesting read partly because he is one of the few convincing (male) gay characters in crime writing. 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 (1970): "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 this 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 McDonald 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 (1970), 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 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America. In 2000, Allyson Publications began an ambitious reprint of the entire series, starting with 1970's Fadeout.
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.
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