Joseph Hansen, “Fadeout” (1970) – Dave Brandstetter works as an insurance investigator in Southern California. He’s sardonic, tough, independent-minded, cultured, and as the back copy puts it, “contentedly gay.” This was a pretty big deal for a book that came out within a year of the Stonewall uprising, and was set a few years before it. His creator, Joseph Hansen, was also gay, seemingly pretty open about it at the time, and to the best of my knowledge the first major openly gay crime fiction writer.
The first of a dozen or so Dave Brandstetter books delivers the genre goods. He’s called in to investigate the disappearance of Fox Olsen, a local celebrity in a small California valley city poised on the edge of bigger stardom for his folksy singing and humorous anecdotes. Everyone assumes he’s dead because his car crashed into a ravine, but there’s no body. There is, naturally, something fishy afoot and Dave needs to navigate both high and low rural California society to get at it.
In most respects, Brandstetter is a standard hardboiled private eye, but gay. He’s a middle-aged war veteran with heartbreak in his past- his partner of twenty years died of cancer just before the book opens. His being gay enters into the investigative proceedings by way of him being able to pick up on queer details of relationships of the people he’s investigating that others don’t. A lot of these seem kind of obvious to a modern reader but in a society both aware and in denial of queer desire, it’s less Brandstetter being in the know about gay stuff that does it and more him being more honest with himself and other than those around him. A lot of the crimes in hardboiled crime stories happen because people don’t want to have hard honest conversations, and there were few sources of avoided conversation more fecund at the time than queer sexuality.
All in all, Hansen produced a pretty bravura debut novel. The crime story is well written and paced, and not too long (under two hundred pages). The social commentary and “gay/lesbian interest” (as the genre tags on the back cover indicate) are well incorporated into the story. There is a little eyebrow-raising depiction of what we’d look at today as fairly sketchy sexual behavior, but it’s crime fiction and also the seventies, so I guess that’s to be expected. I’m curious to see what the subsequent volumes in the Brandstetter series are like. ****’