Gay Noir Pioneer

By Michael NavaMay 16, 2019

Gay Noir Pioneer
I. Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

ON THE FIRST PAGE of the final book in the Dave Brandstetter mystery series, A Country of Old Men (1991), Joseph Hansen’s eponymous, openly gay detective finds a stranger at his door. His visitor is an old man with

a white moustache and goatee. His tweed jacket looked new, but it wouldn’t button over his big belly. He wore a red-striped cotton shirt, new blue denims, crepe-soled shoes, and one of those shapeless canvas hats sold in drugstores, cheap, so that if you lost it on a trip you wouldn’t mind too much.

The stranger at Brandstetter’s door, a mystery writer named Jack Helmers, is none other than Joseph Hansen himself. The initials are the giveaway, but if you’d ever met Joe Hansen in the flesh, you’d have recognized him immediately in the description, down to the tweed coat and striped shirt combo of which the author was so fond.

It’s an oddly meta-moment in a fairly conservative genre and for a writer as traditional as Joseph Hansen. What follows is odder still. Hansen’s introduction of Helmers into the narrative is completely unrelated to the murder mystery. Its sole purpose seems to be to give Hansen an opportunity to do an autobiographical summing up — a portrait of the artist as an old man.

Ostensibly, Helmers has turned up at Brandstetter’s doorstep to report a death: his own. Apparently, a rumor has circulated that Helmers is dead. He comes seeking Brandstetter’s advice because he and Brandstetter were high school friends in Pasadena 50 years earlier. Brandstetter is now a world-famous detective and Helmers a renowned mystery writer. Brandstetter quickly solves the mystery by reminding Helmers that signed copies of his work would be more valuable if he were dead. “Some collector couldn’t make up his mind to shuck out a hundred dollars for a signed copy of your first novel, so the bookseller used the clincher — told him you were dead.”

Helmers readily agrees with this explanation. On his way out, he tells the detective that he’s finally “written that big novel I always wanted to, fifty years ago,” about their high school years. He complains, however, that “[n]obody will publish it.” Over the course of the novel, other ancient classmates appear at Brandstetter’s doorstep begging him to dissuade Helmers from publishing his opus and embarrassing them with their high school hijinks. This clumsily injected subplot gives Hansen a reason to bring Helmers back and, through him, to take his own leave as a mystery writer in his 12th and final Brandstetter novel.

Through Helmers, Hansen sums up his literary achievements. As Brandstetter recalls, Helmers’s boyhood ambition was “to be the best writer America ever saw.” But, as the years passed and the unpublished novels and stories piled up, “it looked more and more certain to Dave than Helmers was one of life’s losers.” Then, in his 40s, Helmers finds success — not, as he’d hoped, as the author of the Great American Novel but (as Brandstetter observes rather dismissively) as a writer of “detective novels.” Abandoning Brandstetter’s voice, Hansen remarks that the mysteries “were literate, reviewers found something elegant about them, and slowly they built him a readership.” This is a modest assessment — more rueful than self-congratulatory — of a series that Hansen’s Los Angeles Times obituary would call “groundbreaking.” The 68-year-old writer, who had set his sights on being America’s greatest writer, takes stock of his accomplishment and finds it wanting.

The self-disclosure doesn’t end there. Helmers is not only facing professional setbacks but also a profound personal loss. The death of his wife of 50 years has set him adrift in the world. Katherine had always been his sturdiest support and dearest companion. Hansen describes the toll her death has taken on Helmers, including the decay of their home, which has fallen into Dickensian squalor after her death:

The house smelled of cats. The floor was stacked with dusty newspapers. […] Magazines catalogues, books, videotapes, records filled the chairs and sofa, avalanches of unopened mail. Cobwebs connected handsome but dusty hand-thrown pots on the mantelpiece. The empty trays of TV dinners make a crooked stack on the television set. […] Katherine would have been more than upset to see the place. She would have wept.

Most of Hansen’s readers knew that, like his sleuth, he was gay (a word he despised, preferring “homosexual”). It would have come as a surprise to them, then, that this passage was autobiographical. Joe Hansen was a homosexual, yes, but he was married for 51 years to Jane Bancroft, a lesbian artist, and together they had a child.

Hansen never fully recovered from Jane’s death. The precise and ghastly description of Helmers’s house was a snapshot of the home Hansen had lived in until he was forced to move out after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. One might wonder why he chose to eulogize his marriage to Jane in heterosexual drag. This may have been because Hansen was ever sensitive to the seeming strangeness of a marriage between two gay people that wasn’t a cover for the homosexuality of either. In a rare comment about his private life, he told Out magazine, “Here 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.” He never spoke publicly at all about his child — and, significantly, Helmers and his wife are childless.

Through his Helmers mouthpiece, Hansen also rails at the publishing industry. Helmers is upset because no one will publish the autobiographical novel he mentions to Brandstetter. In real life, Hansen had written two such novels by 1991, when A Country of Old Men was published, and he had found no takers for either. Both would eventually be published by Dutton: Living Upstairs in 1993 and Jack of Hearts in 1995 (Living Upstairs would win a Lambda Literary Award for best gay fiction). He had already written the third installment in what was to have been a 12-novel bildungsroman, but Dutton passed, as did everyone else. So, while Helmers’s bitterness may have been premature, it foreshadowed Hansen’s real distress at the rejection in his old age of the series of novels designed to be his masterpiece — his last chance to be the Great American Novelist. But he had always felt underappreciated. As his obituary in the Guardian noted, “although he was an admired writer, he felt that the success due to him had not quite materialised.”

Unlike the typical bitching of most writers, there was considerable justice in Hansen’s complaint. He never achieved the commercial success of, say, his contemporary Tony Hillerman, though he was a better and braver writer. The problem was that Hansen’s detective was a faggot and many straight readers would simply not read a book about one of those people no matter how good the reviews were. Hansen understood this, but it still embittered him. He can hardly be blamed for that.

On the other hand, Joseph Hansen mattered in a way that Tony Hillerman and the other noir writers of his generation did not. For some of his readers — the gay ones — Hansen provided more than a few hours of entertainment. We read his books as if our lives depended on them.

II. Fadeout

In the summer of 1977, a 22-year-old gay man picks up a paperback detective novel called Fadeout, published seven years earlier, by a writer named Joseph Hansen. He was given the book by an older gay friend, with a cryptic smile and the words, “I think you’ll like this.” Now, sitting in his sweltering Sacramento apartment, he opens the book.

In Fadeout, a man named Fox Olson drives off a bridge in a storm, his car plunging into the river below. Olson has a life insurance policy with Medallion Insurance. But Olson’s body has not been recovered, and without proof of death, Medallion will not pay the claim. The company dispatches Dave Brandstetter, its best death claims investigator, to determine whether Olson is really dead.

The book begins with Brandstetter on the bridge that was the site of Olson’s apparently fatal accident.

Fog shrouded the canyon, a box canyon above a California ranch town called Pima. It rained. Not hard but steady and gray and dismal. Shaggy pines loomed through the mists like threats. […] Down in the arroyo water pounded, ugly, angry and deep.

Brandstetter is carrying what seems to be a near-suicidal burden of grief. He drives across the bridge “with sweating hands. […] Why so careful? Wasn’t death all he’d wanted for the past six weeks? His mouth tightened. That was finished. He’d made up his mind to live now. Hadn’t he?” A few pages later, he reveals the source of his grief: “Bright and fierce, he pictured again Rod’s face, clay-white, fear in the eyes, as he’d seen it when he found him in the glaring bathroom that first night of the horrible months that had ended in his death from intestinal cancer.”

The young reader’s pulse jumps: Rod?

Brandstetter is grieving the loss of his male lover of 20 years. In chapter six, we get the whole story in flashback. Brandstetter, recently discharged from the army at the end of World War II, enters a furniture shop on Western Avenue in Los Angeles to buy a bed. He sees, across the crowded room (as it were), a young salesman, short and dark, with a dazzling smile. “‘I want you,’ Dave thought and wondered if he’d said it aloud because the boy looked at him then, over the heads of a lot of other people. Straight at him. And there was recognition in the eyes, curious opaque eyes, like bright stones in a stream bed.” The young salesman, Rod Fleming, sells Brandstetter a ridiculous white wicker bed, which he ends up sharing with Brandstetter until his cruel, painful death six weeks before the action in Fadeout begins.

Hansen actually finished writing the book in 1967, but because it involved homosexuality, he didn’t find a publisher until 1970. Why? Because in 1970, Brandstetter’s relationship with Rod Fleming would have exposed them to prosecution in the 49 states — excluding only Illinois — that criminalized gay sex between consenting adults; because in 1970, the American Psychiatric Association still listed homosexuality as a mental illness in its diagnostic handbook. Any publisher who put out a novel featuring a homosexual protagonist could have been assailed as promoting criminal conduct or mental deviance; the book might even have been banned. This is especially true since Brandstetter was presented neither as a criminal nor as mentally ill, but as a hero, at a time when most novels featuring homosexuals — e.g., Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948), John Rechy’s City of Night (1963) tended to treat them, at best, as troubled and rootless men or, at worst, as pathological.

Moreover, Fadeout did more than introduce readers to an openly gay sleuth; it tells what can only be called a gay story. Olson, as it turns out, was not killed in the car crash; rather, he staged the accident so he could run off with his boyhood lover, Doug Sawyer. Sawyer has just returned to Los Angeles from France, where he had lived since the end of World War II. Their reunion is cut short when Olson is murdered and suspicion falls on Sawyer. It’s up to Brandstetter to clear him. In the course of his investigation, he and Sawyer begin a relationship that will carry through the next three books. All of this is presented unsensationally, as if men loving men was the most natural thing in the world. 

Fadeout was a big risk for its publisher, Harper & Row, but it paid off. The book was a critical success and sold well enough to launch Hansen on his career as a writer after 20 years in the literary wilderness. Soon, he would be garnering the kind of reviews for which most writers would kill the family dog. The Los Angeles Times: “[T]he most exciting and effective writer of the classic California private eye novel working today”; The New Yorker: “[A]n excellent craftsman, a compelling writer”; The New York Times: “Hansen knows how to tell a tough, unsentimental, fast-moving story in an exceptionally urbane style”; National Review (!): “After Ross McDonald, what? The smart money is now on Joseph Hansen.”

Clearly, many critics and readers thought Fadeout was more than a novelty act. They were right. Hansen deserved the accolades the reviewers heaped upon him. He is a superlative writer, possessed of a singularly clear, vivid, often poetic style that gives the reader an almost physical pleasure. Some examples: “A disbelieving smile dug lines around her face. She had television teeth” (The Man Everybody Was Afraid of, 1978); “In a wheelchair rode an old party in a tattered picture hat. Across blanketed knees lay a rifle” (Gravedigger, 1982); “The waterwheel was twice a man’s height, wider than a man’s two stretched arms. […] Moss bearded the paddles, which dipped as they rose. The sounds were good. Wooden stutter like children running down a hall at the end of school. Grudging axle thud like the heartbeat of a strong old man” (Death Claims, 1973).

Hansen’s Southern California is a clash of the bucolic and the suburban, a lost Eden where the ghostly scent of plowed-over orange groves haunts the raw streets of ticky-tacky housing tracts. His descriptions of this landscape are as precise and skillful as a master painter. “The shopping center was a cry of light against the hulking darkness of the hills. Its signs were crisply lettered sheets of milky plastic, its shopfronts naked glass, the interiors ice-white fluorescent. Brave but lonely” (Death Claims).

He has a crisp way with dialogue, too, often borrowed from the Chandler playbook of well-placed wisecracks — as when Brandstetter orders a fancy beer in a redneck bar and the lady bartender snaps back, “Dear God. Where do you think you are honey, on board of the Concorde? […] We got three kinds of beer — West’s, and West’s light, and West’s the expensive one” (The Boy Who Was Buried This Morning, 1990). Characterization is also deftly managed, particularly when it’s clear Hansen likes the person. One his more appealing figures is a cross-dresser named Randy Van who turns up in Skinflick (1979). Nowadays, we would recognize Randy as transgender, albeit without surgical modification, but the word was not in popular usage when the book appeared. Still, Hansen’s take on her is remarkably sympathetic. At one point, Randy says, about a beautiful woman: “God to have a body like that.” Brandstetter replies, “What’s supposed to be wrong with the one you’ve got?” Randy says, “It came from the wrong outfitter.” Hansen describes Randy studying the same woman’s “pert breasts,” “[w]ith thoughtful sadness.” And when Randy is forced to dress up as a boy, he complains, “I feel ridiculous in these clothes.”

But Randy Van is one of the few queer characters who gets consistently sympathetic treatment from Hansen. For, although Brandstetter himself, as an out gay man, was a revolutionary figure in crime fiction, he was also virtually without a community and so cast a fairly jaundiced eye on most of his fellow homosexuals.

III. The Old Guard

One of Hansen’s lesser known works is A Few Doors West of Hope (1998), a brief biography of Don Slater, an activist in the pre-Stonewall “homophile” movement. Working out of an office on Los Angeles’s Skid Row, Slater published ONE, the first gay periodical to be sold openly in the United States. In the mid-1950s, the magazine engaged in a long legal battle over the Postmaster General’s attempts to suppress it as obscene. That fight culminated in a one-page Supreme Court decision in which, as Hansen writes in Hope, the court concluded that “ONE magazine was not in fact obscene, but was an exercise of American free speech.”

Beginning in the early 1960s, Hansen became one of the most prolific writers for Slater’s magazine — which, for reasons of internal bickering in the movement, became the magazine Tangents. Tangents was a serious periodical dedicated, according to Slater’s oddly euphemistic mission statement, to “promot[ing] among the general public an interest in, and understanding of, the problems of variation.” Hansen authored such articles as “Suicide and the Homosexual,” which sought to disprove the canard that gays were more likely to commit suicide than straights. His association with the magazine continued until 1969, when it began to die a slow death. The end was hastened, Hansen writes, by the appearance of The Advocate, which he describes as

a smudged bi-weekly tabloid for gays, with a thick, pink-paper advertising section that peddled sex, classified and unclassified. And while readers probably skipped the wretchedly written and predictable articles, they loved those pandering ads, with their blurred muscle-boy photos, and phone number come-ons. Circulation boomed.

Relevant to his later career as a crime fiction writer are two points. First, Hansen was genuinely and courageously a gay activist when such activism was massively risky. Second, his political consciousness was formed by the homophile movement, the old guard that preceded Stonewall. After Stonewall, a mutual antagonism developed between the newly emergent gay liberation movement and many of the older homophile activists. The gay libbers, heirs to the hippies and inspired by the black power and antiwar movements, rejected the conservatism of the homophiles, while the homophiles were appalled by what they considered the gay libbers’ exhibitionism and militancy.

Hansen identified with the old guard. This is nowhere more apparent than in the fourth Brandstetter novel, The Man Everybody Was Afraid of. In that book, Brandstetter’s work takes him to the coastal California town of La Caleta (possibly Santa Barbara), to investigate the murder of the local right-wing chief of police. Charged with the murder is Cliff Kerlee, a Los Angeles gay activist who had recently relocated to La Caleta. Kerlee had had a highly publicized run-in with the chief before his death over Kerlee’s campaign to force the sheriff to hire gay officers.

Here’s Hansen’s description of the demonstration Kerlee staged at La Caleta’s City Hall: “A lot of the lads had muscles, but they minced. There appeared to be chatting and laughter. At a guess, high-pitched. Someone pirouetted. A shriek would have gone with that.” Later, Brandstetter is talking about Kerlee with a man named Richard T. Nowell, a veteran of the homophile movement who has retired to La Caleta. Nowell describes how he spent years in “our mousy little office with our mousy little magazine, minding our business, getting things done,” when, “all of a sudden, here came the clowns.”

The television people went mad. Naturally. I mean, anyone making a total ass of himself is bound to raise ratings. And everybody always knew homosexuals were a bunch of overgrown little girls painting their faces and getting themselves up in mommy’s best organdie. What more could the media ask for? Never a five-minute serious discussion. But screaming queens? Ha ha! Isn’t it killing?

This contempt for the younger generation of gay men is threaded through Hansen’s novels, in ways that would have been condemned as homophobic if expressed by a straight writer. A particularly offensive example appears in Early Graves, Hansen’s 1987 “AIDS novel,” in which a serial killer is stalking and killing men who are dying from the disease. Every one of the victims is depicted as indulging in sleazy, promiscuous sex, and their murderer, it’s revealed, is himself an HIV-positive gay man seeking revenge on those who may have infected him.

Hansen also appears to have been incapable of imagining a gay relationship between equals. Brandstetter has three gay friends who are recurring characters in the books. Each of them is an older, wealthy, white man living with a much younger, financially dependent partner. The younger men are described mostly in terms of their physical attractiveness — they might as well be rent boys.

This troubling dynamic also characterizes Brandstetter’s own final relationship. Following the end of his affair with Doug Sawyer, Brandstetter becomes involved with Cecil Harris, a young African American more than 20 years Brandstetter’s junior. Hansen’s treatment of Cecil verges on the fetishistic; he is unfailingly introduced as “the young black” with whom Brandstetter “shares his bed.” More than once, Hansen sets a scene in darkness, where all Brandstetter can see of Cecil are his teeth and the whites of his eyes, a disturbingly cartoonish racist image. Cecil is also often depicted as weepy and over-emotional, while Brandstetter is cool, stoic, and in control. Although Hansen clearly intends the relationship between the two men to be loving and intimate, it often comes across more like that of a white sugar daddy and his kept, brown-skinned boy.

Hansen’s obituary in the Guardian quotes him as saying that while he admired Ross Macdonald’s private eye Lew Archer, “it bothered me that his detective never had any personal life, and he never changed. My joke was to take the true hard-boiled character in an American fiction tradition and make him homosexual. He was going to be a nice man, a good man, and he was going to do his job well.” If, by giving him a personal life, Hansen meant that Brandstetter has friends and lovers, then he succeeded. What he did not give Brandstetter was an inner life.

Of course, the private eye’s psychological opacity is part of the hard-boiled tradition. Neither Philip Marlowe nor Mike Hammer were navel-gazers; they were men of action, not men of reflection. But, truthfully, what was there for them to reflect upon? They, and other classic noir PIs, were standard, early-20th-century, straight, white American men. If they lived on the fringes of respectable society, it was as a matter of temperament and choice. But Brandstetter is queer. His outsider status is imposed on him by a society that has pathologized and criminalized a basic aspect of his humanity. One would expect him to have some thoughts about this — to reflect upon his decision to live openly as a homosexual in a hostile society and to talk about the internal and external resistances he was forced to confront and overcome in order to do so.

But, no. Dave Brandstetter never engages in this internal monologue. He is simply presented in the first book, Fadeout, as an open and unconflicted homosexual. Moreover, Hansen confers upon Brandstetter great wealth, movie star looks, and fame. There is, then, never the possibility that Brandstetter’s homosexuality will be anything more than a minor inconvenience. Fundamentally, Brandstetter is a fantasy figure created by Hansen out of his own very different experience of being gay in the world. (One senses Hansen’s very real anguish that his years in the literary wilderness had permanently marked him, as Brandstetter says of Helmers, as “one of life’s losers.”)

One cannot judge Hansen too harshly for giving Brandstetter advantages that Hansen never had; he’s not the first novelist living in writerly austerity to create such a compensatory character. But Hansen’s decision to omit the doubts and conflicts that a homosexual of Brandstetter’s generation would certainly have had to resolve in himself renders him, ultimately, a two-dimensional figure.

IV. And Yet

And yet, Dave Brandstetter and his creator, Joseph Hansen, are, if not heroes, often heroic. Chief among the values of Hansen’s generation of activists was dignity and respectability. The gay libbers cared little for dignity and nothing for respectability; they were in-your-face revolutionaries — long-haired androgynes who staged kiss-ins at politicians’ offices and organized the first Gay Pride parades. But the old guard? They were the men and women, dressed in coat and tie or skirt and gloves, who politely picketed the White House in the early 1960s carrying placards with messages like “U.S. Claims No Second Class Citizens — What About Homosexual Citizens?” and “An Inalienable Right The Pursuit of Happiness — For Homosexuals Too.” They were not revolutionaries; they were American citizens. There is no question that they were as courageous as the gay libbers, if not more so, but what they wanted was a seat at the American table, not to overturn it.

Brandstetter embodies the virtues of this first wave of activists. He is dignified, rational, responsible, and persistent. He’s a professional who’s good at his job, the best. He does not rail against injustices but quietly sets out to correct them. He identifies with people of color, albeit somewhat paternalistically. He is protective of the weak and the young. He treats women as his equals, and you are hard-pressed to find a hint of misogyny in the series. Above all, Dave Brandstetter is a decent human being.

Joseph Hansen shared that quality of decency with his creation. Indeed, had he not had such qualities within himself, he would not have been able to so persuasively imbue Brandstetter with them. Hansen could be difficult and tetchy, but he was also a loyal friend, a generous teacher (he taught for years at UCLA extension), and fundamentally a kind man. It also bears repeating that he was a superb writer; maybe the best noir mystery writer of his generation. While the quality of his books varies, as do the books of all writers, everything he wrote is worth reading, which isn’t something you can say of most writers.

Sadly, all but his first two Brandstetter books, Fadeout and Death Claims, are out of print. This has less to do with the quality of the books than the question of who holds the copyrights. It’s not clear if Hansen left a will when he died in 2004. Unless he named another beneficiary, his copyrights would have passed to his son, from whom, at the time of his death, he had been estranged for many years. Neither he nor his executor, if there was one, may even have known where to find his son. In any event, and for whatever reason, most of the books are out of print, which is a great loss to American literature.

But all may not be lost. Hansen once told a friend he’d gone to see a psychic who “predicted I’d be famous,” and then added, with a rueful laugh, “Posthumously.”

Let’s hope that prediction comes true.


Michael Nava is the author of a groundbreaking series of novels featured gay Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios.

LARB Contributor

Michael Nava is the author of a groundbreaking series of seven novels featuring a gay, Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios. Nava is a six-time recipient of the Lambda Literary Award in the mystery category, as well as the Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award for gay and lesbian literature.


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