Joseph Hansen, “Death Claims” (1973) – Murder and insurance fraud in rundown California beach towns and amongst used booksellers — fancy first edition types, not the kind of places I frequent — is the order of the day in this second in the Dave Brandstetter mysteries. Dave is an insurance investigator- tough, cynical, honest, and gay. Hansen was the first big openly gay American crime writer, and Brandstetter walks in the shoes of hardboiled private eyes like the Continental Op and, especially, Philip Marlowe. Ray Chandler didn’t like gay people much- to the extent Chandler was a leftist, he was very much in the old west coast, Jack London mold that saw deviation from the norms of white working class masculinity as a threat. But I think Hansen saw in Marlowe, the archetypal detective hero Chandler created, a way to explore gay themes. Chandler might not have liked the gays but he made a hero out of a loner with sensitive perception, fine taste (Marlowe is forever judging clothes and interior decor), and a code of honor which he rigorously adheres to despite it being at odds with the society around him… perhaps that sounded familiar to Joseph Hansen.
In any event- John Oats, life insurance policyholder, goes for a swim in the ocean during unlikely weather and drowns. There’s a variety of people around him — a new young lover, an angry ex-wife now shacked up with his former partner in bookselling, a squeaky-clean cowboy actor — but signs point to his son, with whom he was close. Brandstetter unknots the mystery through persistence and perceptiveness, and it helps he sees things — especially certain aspects of relationships — that are opaque to others, especially cops. In the end, we wind up with a tale of opiate addiction and blackmail, and there wind up being plenty of candidates for who took John on his final swim. On top of it all, Dave has his own domestic issues to worry about, as both he and his boyfriend are in love with dead men. This was by and large pretty good, though I could see it getting a little tired, over the course of ten or twelve books, Dave solving these mysteries basically using gaydar. But they’re decent crime novels and an interesting depiction of gay life just before Stonewall- “Death Claims” is set in 1968, and I’m curious if subsequent installments will deal with the increased prominence of gay people and their claims for rights. ****’