DECEMBER 5, 2014
The following is a feature article from the new intern issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: The Magazine. The issue, which our interns produced as part of this past summer’s LARB Publishing Course, was mailed to subscribing LARB members. Click here to get your subscription today.
IN THE LATE 1970s, a Hollywood film studio queried Joseph Hansen about optioning his popular series of detective novels, each featuring an out-of-the-closet insurance company investigator named Dave Brandstetter. The usual lunch ensued. “We’ll want to make a few changes, of course,” the studio suits informed Hansen. Their primary imposition: “Brandstetter’s not gay.”
In sharing this story with me one afternoon at his house on Cullen Street in Los Angeles, Hansen chuckled and broke off his account. He did not elaborate on his response to the executives because he didn’t have to. I knew what to expect of him as a pathbreaking author with contumacious integrity. As a young poet and small press editor with production facilities at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California, I got such glimpses into his life during discussions of his short story collection, The Dog and Other Stories (1979), as well as his first volume of poetry, One Foot in the Boat (1977), both of which I published. I got to know him and his writing during the recalibration of his manuscripts into book form, and came to understand how his devotion to writing was different from that of many other writers. Redressing inequities was not an option for Joseph Hansen; instead, the politics of being an author in the welter of mid-century homophobia meant that an extraordinary steadfastness was necessary to hold to the course he had set for himself.
That a film company wanted to neuter the first out-of-closet detective hero would not have ripped any of Hansen’s illusions apart. In his introduction to Bohannon’s Country, a collection of short stories, he recounts that Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine turned down a story in 1973 that featured Dave Brandstetter as its protagonist. According to Hansen, EQMM editor Fred Dannay explicitly justified his decision to reject the story, “Surf,” because subscribers “were not ready for homosexuality,” even as non-normative inclinations, let alone as part of the ordinary scheme of social life. Fifteen years later, EQMM relinquished this editorial policy and in June, 1989 published Hansen’s story, “Molly’s Aim,” which featured a gay second character named Hugh Henderson. This particular publication gave Hansen immense satisfaction:
I was pleased, because it meant I’d broken down a literary barrier against me and my kind. All my writing life, one of my aims has been to make my readers stand in the shoes of strangers and know what it’s like to be someone else — someone perhaps very different from themselves, someone they may heretofore even have hated or feared.
Hansen was not the first to showcase a gay detective. George Baxt (1923–2003) created the first in 1966: Pharoah Love, the gay (and black) protagonist of A Queer Kind of Death. As the social aftershocks of the 1970s grew ever more complicated, however, it was Hansen’s detective who proved to be a far more sympathetic and engaging hero. One reason is that Hansen is careful not to misrepresent his subject matter. As he told editor Leland Hickman, in an interview for the last issue of Bachy magazine in 1981:
Not to fake anything. That’s the morality of craft. If you have a predisposition to be sentimental, then you have to recognize that as a weakness that will make you a bad writer, and get rid of it every time it crops up. You have to be a hard person when you sit down at the typewriter — not cynical, but clear-sighted, determined to tell the truth. When I’m writing, I insist to myself that things must go down on paper as they are. I do my damnest not to misrepresent the smallest thing, if I can help it.
If Hansen did not want to “misrepresent the smallest thing,” he also did not want to exaggerate. If the straight world’s fantasy of homosexual life is still dominated by surplus afterimages of erotic gratification, Hansen’s writing pushes back and rectifies that error while simultaneously ratifying the tactile bond of human companionship. In helping a heterosexual reader comprehend what might still be regarded as an exotic subculture, Hansen is careful not to preach, even obliquely. Instead, he is illustrative. He shows the naïve straight world that being gay is no more homogenizing than any other social category. Anthony P. Cohen pointed out years ago that communities are determined by a boundary line, and that those outside of any demarcated sphere perceive those inside the boundary line as all alike. All liberals “know” what Tea Party activists are like. All corporate CEOs “know” what Greenpeace activists are like. Only when one crosses that boundary line does one begin to comprehend the diversity and heterogeneity of any community. For any reader wishing to take that step, Hansen’s Brandstetter novels are a superb guide.
In Embracing a Gay Identity, Wilfrid R. Koponen observes that:
The hard-boiled detective novel, for instance, was originally largely homophobic. Yet Joseph Hansen has written a noteworthy series of frankly gay novels within that genre […] Surprisingly, Hansen has won high praise from William Buckley’s conservative news magazine National Review, which has consistently ridiculed gay people, gay rights activists, and the gay rights movement. It said of the sixth Dave Brandstetter mystery, “There’s no one more promising on the detective story scene today, and Gravedigger  is Hansen’s best book yet.”
Likewise, on the front cover of a paperback edition of The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of (1978), a banner that angles up from the bottom left-hand corner reads “Selected as one of ten ‘Best Books’ of the year in the crime category by The New York Times Book Review.” But despite this level of praise from mainstream media outlets, Hansen’s breakthrough required redoubled commitment midway through Brandstetter’s pursuit of legitimacy: his regular publisher turned down the manuscript of The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of. According to Hansen (in his interview with Hickman), a dozen publishers, in fact, turned it down:
That was a long, scary summer. I thought I was washed up as a writer, and didn’t know what else I would do at my age to earn a living. But that novel did very well, much better than the earlier Brandstetter books. Ironically, the plot was praised everywhere. And the book got me a lot of new goodies […] publication in Japan, which hadn’t happened to me before.
It is hard to believe that a writer of Hansen’s track record encountered problems getting a book published, but the problem is almost flagrantly in view. The liaison in Afraid Of between Dave Brandstetter and Cecil Harris, a young African-American male, would have been off-putting to the mainstream publishing establishment — an environment in which Glenn Burke, the African-American baseball player who invented the “high five” gesture that is now ubiquitously iconic, was driven out of the major leagues for being gay. Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier 30 years earlier, but being gay was another matter. Now consider the sexual and racial lines that Hansen was already crossing in novels like Afraid Of and Gravedigger.
Halfway through Gravedigger, the quest Dave had been on — for definite proof of an insured person’s death — appears settled, and Dave and Cecil (his now long-term lover) are set to have an evening to themselves. No sooner have they headed up the staircase than Cecil remembers that there is a message on the answering machine. Within five minutes, Dave realizes the case he’s working on needs immediate, renewed attention:
[Dave] lifted down the sheepskin jacket from a big brass hook beside the door. He called, “I have to go out. See you for breakfast.”
“What!” The bedframe jounced. Heels thumped the loft planks. Cecil scowled down at him over the railing. He was naked, the firelight glancing off his blackness. “You going out? You leaving this?” He showed Dave what he meant. “What am I supposed to do with it here all by myself all night long?”
“You can bring it with you.” Dave shrugged into the coat. “If you don’t mind missing your sleep.”
“Sleep would not be what I missed.” Cecil vanished from view. “Wait for me. I’ll be right there.”
In the 1960s, when Hansen first began to sketch out the character of Dave Brandstetter, homosexuality was still classified as a disease. Hansen’s stories are a fictional extension of the work done by psychologist Evelyn Hooker — who in 1957 argued against this classification — and help give a local habitation and a name to the kind of normative categorization that Hooker helped to establish. Novelists cannot produce stories worth rereading for their literary value if they focus on social commentary alone, and yet one of the remarkable aspects of Hansen’s literary career is the degree to which he managed both. In doing so, he makes it possible for readers to understand the intellectual arguments underpinning scientific experiments in the field of personal psychology and social formation. In probing the layered emulsions of Brandstetter’s travails as a “widowed” gay man — having lost his long-time lover to cancer and trying to find a way to recuperate in a hostile society — Hansen demonstrated, long before the battle for gay marriage, that relationships between homosexuals who love each other are as complicated in their enduring intimacy as heterosexual commitments. Hansen’s fiction enables his readers, both gay and straight, to encounter the internal dialectic of a social movement.
His accomplishment involved a tortuous journey. Hansen’s boyhood was cinched by the Great Depression, and he never went further than high school. It was only in his early 40s, in fact, that he began to earn even a modest living from his writing. Even so, by the early 1990s, Dave Brandstetter’s investigations of insurance fraud cases had reached a readership in the hundreds of thousands in a total of 12 novels.
Beyond Hansen’s courage to break through longstanding social mores is the question of whether the writing deserves revisiting.
In Early Graves (1987), Cecil confronts Dave Brandstetter in an almost accusatory tone of voice, “Did anybody ever tell you, you have ice water in your veins?”
“Several people.” Dave blew away smoke, groped for and found the ash tray in the blue dash. “On several occasions. Always when they knew I was right and they were wrong. Emotions doesn’t change facts. And they hated believing that.”
Pausing to savor Hansen’s writing, we see that it would be an error to limit appreciation of his work to his trailblazing alone. Even in casual conversation, Hansen enfolds characterization of imagined people with supple, subtle syntax. He sets up a delayed parallel: “several people […] on several occasions,” and then lets the second implied parallel serve as a rhetorical counterweight. The ending of that paragraph reads one way, but in its full unfolding ripples out like this: “Always when they knew I was right and they were wrong (and always) they hated believing that emotions doesn’t change facts.” The fact that the spoken thought triggers one of the most acidic emotions only underscores the intransigence of facts under the brunt of inner, obdurate turmoil. One should note that “emotions” is a collective noun, and therefore it takes the singular verb. Brandstetter is not a grammar sleuth who corrects others’ speech, but he holds himself to an admirable standard; this conversation reveals the expectations that the character has for himself in negotiating the boundary between the straight world and the gay world.
Thanks to felicitously deft language like this, Hansen deserves to be remembered as one of the score of writers who changed the status of the detective novel in the field of serious literature. Until Ross Macdonald, Joseph Hansen, and P.D. James held their writing to the same standards of well-crafted sentences that are worth reading and rereading for the pleasure of their rhythmic intrigue, the mystery genre remained this outlier of literature on which only a handful of masterful writers (such as Raymond Chandler) resided. At a crucial stage in the post-Chandler development of the genre, Hansen was among those who made readers pay attention to the story that the writing itself is telling.
But if Hansen’s work ended up alongside that of Chandler and Macdonald, it was not for lack of artistic ambition. He knew very well that “mysteries ghettoize you” as a writer; nevertheless, the formal requirements invigorated his ability to probe human frailty. Perhaps Hansen’s passion for poetry was even part of his underlying attraction to the detective genre. “In its restrictions, the detective novel is closer to a poem than to a novel (with its ‘long, loosely structured’ form),” he said in the interview with Hickman, “The music of Mozart, Bach, Hayden, is wonderful, held tight inside restrictive formats. But so is Mahler’s Symphony Number Three wonderful.” I linger on this aspect because to compare Hansen’s writing only with other authors who produced memorable work in his primary genre is to fall prey to an easy error. Substantial authors allow us to see the cross-pollination that occurs between genres, and Hansen’s prose recoils and imbricates itself with American poets in ways that need further consideration by literary critics. I would argue, in fact, that Hansen’s literary project, including his control of tone and diction, owes more to poets such as Robert Frost and E.A. Robinson than to other detective novelists. Indeed, the most relevant books to set alongside Joseph Hansen’s Gravedigger are Robert Frost’s North of Boston and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
One of my favorite examples of Hansen’s ability to make a conventional situation memorable is his short story “Legacy,” which was first published in 1965 in One, the pioneering gay magazine founded by Don Slater in Los Angeles. Midway through the story, country doctor Arthur Mohr gets a phone call in the middle of the night to help deliver a baby at a poor ranch. The weather is not cooperating, and his vehicular vision is hindered by his haste:
In front of him loomed a battered pickup truck, not a light showing, no one inside it. Its front wheels were mired in the shoulder gumbo. Its sharp, shovel-shaped rear end half across the blacktop. He tramped the brake pedal, geared down, wrenched the wheel. No good. Not at this speed. Not in the rain. The stalled pickup rushed at him. No, he thought, this can’t be happening to me. Then he thought, Robie.
Then he no longer thought.
In many ways, there is no better method for learning how to write than to sit at one’s desk and type up a story one admires. I had the fortune of publishing one of Hansen’s collections outside of the mystery genre, The Dog and Other Stories (Momentum Press, 1979), in which collection “Legacy” was republished. As a young, aspiring publisher back in the days when typesetting machines had no disc memory, I learned from “Legacy” what economy meant in regard to writing. Few one-sentence paragraphs such as the one above have modeled how to render the culmination of a scene with connotative poignancy. The lead-up is on the mark: the double negative of “No, this can’t be happening to me” is followed by his final affirmation. In this scene, as in all his writing, accuracy and the refusal to be emotionally indulgent are crucial matters of artistic integrity.
In citing Hansen’s kinship with poets, I am also providing a way to address his under-recognized contributions to certain poetic movements, especially in Los Angeles. Of all the writers who contributed to the LA poetry renaissance in the second half of the 20th century, Joseph Hansen probably gave the most and got the least in return. Most significantly, Hansen was one of the co-founders of the Beyond Baroque poetry workshop, a free and open-to-the-public gathering that has met on Wednesday evenings in Venice for 45 years. Along with John Harris, Hansen established an accessible public workshop with serious standards of literary excellence. The fact that Hansen won a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship for his fiction a couple of years after starting the workshop only reinforced his stature as the workshop’s standard bearer. And thanks in part to his commitment to helping others become better writers, the Beyond Baroque workshop’s alumni includes such poets as Wanda Coleman, Leland Hickman, Harry Northup, and Exene Cervenka, as well as noteworthy novelists Jim Krusoe and Kate Braverman.
Without his encouragement, I wonder where Leland Hickman would have found support for his long poem, “Tiresias,” which was the success upon which Hickman launched his editorial career. Almost no writer associated with or influenced by the Language writing movement realizes that Hickman’s journey — which culminated with 10 issues of the landmark literary magazine Temblor — began in a storefront workshop headed up by Joseph Hansen. As I recount in Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992, Hansen’s enthusiastic endorsement of Leland Hickman’s poem was one of the pivotal moments of Los Angeles poetry’s maturation in the 1970s.
Surely no other major mystery writer has played such an important role in the maturation of another literary genre in a major American city. Then again, few mystery writers were also poets as accomplished as Hansen. One Foot in the Boat compiled poems written between the early 1950s and 1970s, but I would rather call attention to his best published poem, which remains uncollected. “The Dark/The Diary” is an account of the final illness of his spouse. Written in syllabics and hewing to an exact scheme of seven as a formal reiteration (seven syllables per line, seven lines per stanza, seven stanzas per part, seven parts to the whole poem), this poem is a profoundly tender, hauntingly unsentimental look at nursing a lifetime companion through the harrowing passage out of this life. It was published in an issue of Zyzzyva in the mid-1990s and deserves reprinting in any anthology that would claim to present the best American poetry of the past half-century. One of Hansen’s non-detective novels, Job’s Year (1985), takes on a similar subject in a month-by-month account of a life’s final year. In both “The Dark/The Diary” and Job’s Year, one gets a sense that rather than just having one foot of his own in the boat of Charon, Hansen is helping his life’s companion to step into that boat with both feet still in motion.
While working on this article, I went through several boxes of my personal archives and serendipitously found a flyer from a poetry reading 20 years ago: Joseph Hansen and FrancEyE (a.k.a. Frances Dean Smith) read together as a benefit for the Church in Ocean Park in Santa Monica on Sunday, August 25, 1996. The flyer took note that “FrancEyE’s poems disappeared thirty-three years ago due to carelessness and a disordered life. Joseph Hansen’s poems were buried in the ’94 Northridge Earthquake.” How much got buried in that earthquake is hard to determine. It is my understanding that Hansen’s literary papers are in the possession of the Huntington Library, and that they remain uncataloged a decade after arriving in San Marino. At some point, these papers need to become available to researchers (along with the papers of Los Angeles poet Ann Stanford). While literary critics have a significant amount of his prose to work with, no anthology of the Los Angeles literary canon will be complete until Hansen’s poetry seizes its rightful place among its pages.
It was as a poet, in fact, that Hansen announced his retirement. Two days before the events of 9/11, a sonnet showed up in my e-mail account at the University of California, San Diego:
SHUTTING UP SHOP
Lately, you realise it’s all behind you,
You’ve said it all, there’s nothing left to say,
The words you chose, the ideas that defined you
Were uttered long ago and far away.
Yes, a few strangers listened for a minute,
Some of them smiled and nodded, even spoke,
Seconded what you said, and the truth in it,
Lauded your words and what they could evoke.
But they had jobs to go to, lovers, cities
To bomb, children to feed, and words are never
In short supply among us, ironies, pities
Abound, and mouths to speak the words forever.
And then you’re old, and come to realise
Words are not half as eloquent as sighs.
— Joe Hansen
September 9, 2001
In this overly modest Prospero-like farewell, Hansen forgets his own character’s stern reminder: “Emotions doesn’t change facts.” In this case, the fact is that although Hansen is not remembered to the extent that he deserves, those who treasure his writing should not sigh. His works are mentioned in histories on LGBT literature, detective fiction anthologies, and books such as David Fine’s Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (2000). Of course, those mentions tend to be about Dave Brandstetter, and fail to address Hansen’s poetry, other prose, and even Hank Bohannon, his other detective. It is true that Brandstetter may be the first point of entry for many new readers of Hansen’s work, but any exploration of his writing shouldn’t end there. The one thing I regret most in writing this brief article is that I have not addressed the non-detective novels in the way they deserve. It is not just that such coming-of-age novels as Living Upstairs and Jack of Hearts are equally well written. These bildungsromans enable readers to imagine the vistas of Los Angeles that are described in documentary detail in books such as Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics. Hansen’s fictionalized accounts of his youth are every bit as engaging and empowering as the best of the Brandstetter series. In his interview with Hickman, he observed “that satisfactory relationships between human beings are so rare as to be nonexistent.” One source of satisfaction remains in full force, however: the relationship between a reader and a writer that the reader can trust. Hansen’s trust in us is well-founded, as long as we make ourselves as vulnerable and honest as he did in his writing.