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REVIEW: Fadeout, Death Claims, and Troublemaker by Joseph Hansen

Dear Readers,

I’ve been reading mysteries for about as long as I’ve been reading romance, but until I started reading m/m romance I’d never heard of the late Joseph Hansen’s Brandstetter series, or at least not that I remember. That tells you something, because I’ve read some pretty obscure mystery series and I have various anthologies and critiques of the genre on my shelves. Better late than never, though, because the Brandstetter mysteries are terrific. They’ve haven’t gone entirely out of print, but the paperbacks are expensive and/or hard to come by, and only the first two were even digitized (at similarly expensive prices and in a reader-unfriendly PDF format). However, Open Road Media acquired the ebook rights to subsequent installments, and when I saw #3, Troublemaker, on Netgalley I snapped it up. I thought it might be useful to provide an overview of the first three novels, since many readers are like me and prefer to read in order.

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Dave Brandstetter wasn’t the first homosexual detective in the genre, but he may have been the first that was, as Hansen put it, “a decent man who happened to be gay.” Across the twelve novels, Brandstetter grieves for the loss of his longtime partner, finds a new lover, breaks up with him, and then begins a strong, committed relationship with a younger partner. These aren’t romances in the genre sense, because the relationship(s) are ongoing across novels and they don’t always end happily. But relationships of all types are at the core of Hansen’s stories as much as the mysteries are. Hansen’s debt to earlier writers from Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler to Ross McDonald will be evident to genre readers, but these books are also original in their own ways, and not just because the narrator and many of the characters are gay.


Fadeout by Joseph HansenFadeout
by Joseph Hansen

In Fadeout, we’re first introduced to Brandstetter when he investigates the apparent death of a radio show host and small-town celebrity, Fox Olson. Dave is not technically a detective but an investigator for an insurance company. But since the insurance company is a family business, and since insurance claims aren’t paid out under certain circumstances, he has a lot of scope for detective work. In this case Olson is presumed dead but his body hasn’t been found, and $50,000 is a lot of money in the late 1960s. Although Olson was popular and successful, his life wasn’t perfect: his wife was having an affair with his boss and his married daughter was living in a trailer with her financially unsuccessful husband, her alcoholic mother-in-law, and her husband’s severely disabled younger brother.

It’s a familiar cast of characters, but Hansen’s writing and characterizations make the story compelling, especially when he lets the reader see behind Brandstetter’s taciturn front, trying to come to grips with his loss:

They’d liked sharing detective stories—Arthur Crook, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, characters he wouldn’t read about again because they wouldn’t speak the same without Rod’s voice. He read well. If he hadn’t been so nelly he’d have made a fine actor. But it hadn’t been possible to school out of him all the femininity. Dave had tried. So had Rod. The affectations went, but what underlay them was ingrained. Real. Himself. Dave gave up trying after a while. Age took care of it to some extent. Death took care of it completely.

No. That was how he mustn’t think. Tears came hot into his eyes. He got up and walked the room. Remember something else. For God’s sake, forget about the dying. Remember the trip to Oak Canyon, the cabin in the woods, making love by the light of crackling pine logs, waking in the morning to see out the window the whole landscape snow-muffled, white, white. . . .

The excerpt reflects the time in which Fadeout was written; you certainly wouldn’t see “nelly” used to describe effeminate behavior today. I was able to read past that, but I can understand if not all readers are willing to.

By the end of the book, the mystery has been solved in an interesting, somewhat unexpected way, and Dave looks as if he might be able to move on and make a new life. Grade: A-

 

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Death Claims by Joseph HansenDeath Claims by Joseph Hansen

The second book, Death Claims, picks up a few months after Fadeout ends. Dave is now sharing his home with the man who was such a promising possibility in the former book, and at work he’s investigating a supposed suicide that doesn’t look quite right. John Oats had an apparently enviable life until he was badly burned in a fire, but he endured a long and painful recovery process with the help of a much younger girlfriend who was devoted to him, and he had a good relationship with his adult son who lived with them. The coroner ruled that it was death by drowning, but Oats had a head wound when he was found, and Oats had been talking to his lawyer about changes to his will. As Dave digs into Oats’s history, he finds links to old friends, a bitter ex-wife and the business partner she dominates, a major TV actor and his retinue, connections from Oats’s stay in hospital, and further twists via Peter, Oats’s son. The cast of characters is large, but Hansen juggles them deftly. The mystery takes a number of twists and turns before the final resolution. It was not at all what I was expecting but it was quite satisfying, and it tied up a seemingly trivial loose end from the first chapter. I love when that happens.

Meanwhile, on the personal front, Dave’s relationship with Doug is going through some pretty rocky patches because neither of them has entirely let go their previous relationships, and both are still mourning those losses whether they’re willing to admit it or not. We also see quite a bit of Dave’s friend, Madge, who was introduced in Fadeout; Madge is a skillfully drawn character who some of today’s m/m authors could learn a lot from. Grade: A-

 

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Troublemaker by Joseph HansenTroublemaker by Joseph Hansen

The third installment, Troublemaker, opens with Dave’s investigation of the killing of Richard Wendell. Wendell was apparently murdered by Larry Johns after Johns came home with Wendell one night. Wendell’s mother and beneficiary, Heather, is sure that Johns is guilty, and so are the cops who arrested him. But Dave is less sure, and his investigations lead him into the tangled web of people who surround Ted Owens, a respected architect who took Johns into the home Owens shares with his sister and niece. As Dave unravels the story behind Johns, Owens, and their respective histories and families, Wendell’s murder shares the stage with a complex story of family resentments, old relationships, and simple greed.

The story has a lot of twists and turns, and while it’s not quite as satisfying as the previous installment, the characters are equally well-drawn. Hansen rarely hits us oveor the head with what it was like to be gay, but instead lets his characters do the talking:

“I don’t think he’s a killer,” Dave said.

“The police don’t agree with you. Nor do I.”

“The police are busy. And you don’t like the boy. Those don’t impress me as sufficient reasons to lock him up for the rest of his life.”

She dug keys out of her bag and looked at him. “And your reason for defending him? Isn’t it the same as Tom’s? You’re another of those, aren’t you?”

“I try not to let it get in the way of my work,” Dave said. “Mrs. Ewing, Larry Johns was simply a catalyst. His phone call from your kitchen triggered a chain reaction that ended in a man’s death.” Dave pushed out of the booth and stood facing her. “If you’d told your brother what you’ve told me here today, it’s possible that man might still be alive.”

On the personal front, Dave and Doug have overcome their earlier issues but they haven’t really settled into a stable relationship, and the daily presence of a third party who hits on both Dave and Doug doesn’t help. Madge shows up in a brief but enjoyable and informative scene, and we get to spend a little time with Dave’s father, Carl.

Dave’s relationship with his father turns the usual stereotypes around, because Carl Brandstetter is a many-times-married heterosexual with a string of ex-wives to whom he makes alimony payments. By contrast, Dave is (mostly) serially monogamous, and it seems clear so far in the books that he in happiest when he is in a stable, long-term relationship. Carl isn’t overtly supportive of Dave’s lifestyle, but he cares about his son:

Carl Brandstetter said without looking up, “You plan to go free lance when I die, I hope. Because you know the board will fire you. And why.”

Dave shrugged. “I like the job,” he said. “But I feel about it the way you feel about your heart. I’m not ready to give up my sex life for it.”

Many of my favorite fictional detectives are excellent at their work and terrible at their lives. But Dave is that rarity, a decent, well-balanced man who is interesting. You root for him and care what happens to him, and you’re never bored in his company even though he’s neither talkative nor particularly emotive. But he unfailingly rewards your attention.

I want to reiterate that the novels are not romances; Dave’s relationship is anything but smooth, and the other romantic storylines are depressing rather than uplifting. But they are stories about relationships, good and bad. And for the most part, Dave’s relationships (with his friend Madge, with his father, with his cop friends and acquaintances) are good ones. You come away from the three books feeling that Dave has a handle on what it takes to make a good life, despite the difficulties gay men faced in that era. And I have it on good authority that his love life becomes more stable and rewarding as the series continues. I’ll keep you posted. Grade: B+

Note: The first two books of the series (published by the University of Wisconsin Press) have reportedly had some formatting issues in the transfer from pdf to epub and mobi formats. Troublemaker and the books that follow it, however, have been converted much more successfully by Open Road.

~ Sunita

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Sunita has been reading romances almost as long as she has been reading. Her favorite genres these days are contemporary, category, and novels with romantic elements. She also reads SFF, mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, and the backs of cereal boxes.

30 Comments

  1. harthad
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 16:04:24

    Thanks so much for giving these books well-deserved attention! I was thrilled to see the later volumes back in print. All of them but one are also digitized and available at OpenLibrary.org. I discovered them via a mention by Josh Lanyon, who claims them as an influence. I’m halfway through the fifth one (Skinflick), and they’re all good mysteries, intricate and twisty, though sometimes I need a program to keep track of all the players.

    They’re very much a product of their time, set firmly in the early 70’s, not just in terms of attitudes but in settings (interiors are described in all their retro glory) and in the fact that everybody smokes ALL the time. There are some interesting glimpses of gay culture from that period, thought they get the same kind of dispassionate attention the rest of the world gets through Dave’s rather world-weary eyes. Dave routinely runs up against ugliness of numerous kinds, including anti-gay prejudice, but is just so comfortable in his own skin that it doesn’t warp him. I almost wish there was more of Dave to be seen, because he’s so interesting; his personal life appears mainly in the little gaps in the action. Often the reader doesn’t hear much of his thought processes, and his emotions are most on display in the first one, when he’s mourning the loss of his partner.

    The writing style is very hard-boiled, very noir. Fadeout in particular has moments of beautifully melancholy prose, but I find that as the volumes go on the style becomes steadily more clipped and spare. I think it’s also worth mentioning that Los Angeles (Dave’s home base) and its environs are lovingly evoked; California’s varied landscapes as well as its ethnic diversity are regularly on display.

  2. Keishon
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 16:55:59

    Great overview of the first three books Sunita and for that, my thanks. I plan to give these a try because they sound really good. I already started the Michael Nava as well, The Little Death.

  3. cleo
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 17:28:26

    Thanks for this. Didn’t know about this author but it sounds like something I’d like.

  4. Sunita
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 18:15:56

    @harthad: Thanks for commenting! I agree that the books really capture the atmosphere both of the time and the place. One of the things I most like about the way Hansen portrays California is that he ranges from the ocean to the desert to the mountains, and he shows you the microcultures that exist, rather than just reinforcing conventional expectations of what California is/was.

    I’m pretty sure I first found them through a Josh Lanyon reference as well, and I think I see the influence; the books are very different, but there is a sensibility that is common to both. And of course you’re right to call them hard-boiled/noir, but somehow they don’t feel as bleak or as cynical as, say, Hammett or Chandler do. Maybe because Dave is such a decent person, and he looks for the decency that can be found in others.

  5. Sunita
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 18:18:54

    @Keishon: I think you’ll like them, especially given that you’ve been reading similar works recently. So glad you’re reading the first Nava! I need to go back to that series.

    @cleo: You’re welcome, and keep me posted on what you think!

  6. harthad
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 18:42:59

    @Sunita: Yes, I agree they lack the bleakness of noir. Dave often encounters the worst of human nature, but having him as the POV character means that there’s no despair, just because he’s so resilient.

    I’m a big Josh Lanyon fan, and I owe that to your review of Fair Game, which motivated me to pick it up. So I thank you for that too!

  7. Jean Marie Ward
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 19:23:02

    Thanks so much for these reviews, Sunita. I found the Dave Brandstetter mysteries shortly after I graduated college, and immediately loved them. It was a beautifully opened window to another world, and I loved them as I loved Hammett, Chandler, and Ross Thomas. I’m thrilled they’ve been reprinted (repixelated?) and are finding a well-deserved new audience.

  8. cleo
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 19:32:53

    What’s the Michael Nava series?

  9. Sunita
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 19:42:18

    @harthad: That was one of my first reviews at DA, I think, and it’s still one of my favorite m/m romances!

    @Jean Marie Ward: I’m hoping that too (that more and more readers will discover them); the pdf versions are kind of a pain to read, so Open Road’s versions are really welcome.

    @cleo: Michael Nava is a lawyer and writer who wrote a series of mysteries about a Latino lawyer, Henry Rios. The writing is excellent and like Hansen, Nava evokes the era and the setting beautifully. They’re not romances but Henry has relationships across the series. I wrote about the first one at my now-defunct blog. I’ve been meaning to review the first three here at DA, because they’re also coming out (finally) in ebook form and hopefully they will find a new audience.

  10. Sunita
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 19:50:25

    @harthad: Oh, I meant to respond to your point about the twisty and intricate mystery plots; you are so right. This post took me forever to write because I had such a hard time providing useful information about the stories without massive spoilers. For Troublemaker I finally made a big flowchart so that I could be sure I had all the relationships categorized correctly and didn’t give anything away!

  11. Ruth
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 21:16:23

    It looks like the first michael nava book is $1.99 at amazon right now. It seems like the time to buy it.

  12. Sunita
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 21:26:30

    @Ruth: Thanks for that information! At $1.99 it’s absolutely a steal. Here’s the link (Amazon US).

  13. harthad
    Aug 08, 2013 @ 21:28:00

    @Sunita: The later ones are the same way. I’ve found I don’t dare go more than a day or two without reading on them, or I forget who’s who.

    @Ruth: Same price at B&N. Thanks for the tip, buying it now! Oy, just what I need, another series to start…

  14. Sirius
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 03:06:22

    Fantastic reviews Sunita. You know that I love these books too and trying so hard not to read them all right away. I use them as palate cleanser ;). But I am already on book nine and so not looking forward to saying good bye to Dave and his world.

  15. cleo
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 07:38:38

    @Ruth: Thanks. Just down loaded it now.

    @Sunita – Glad I asked about the Nava. I asked because I have this vague memory of reading a review of a mystery with a gay male detective written and set in the seventies (iirc- remember the review saying it was set in that window b/w Stonewall and HIV/AIDS. I also remember a comenter saying Dan Savage would approve of the book / relationships in it). Thought it was on DA but can’t find it. None of the books described in this post fit my memory of the review (not sure how reliable that memory is) but I’m really excited to discover a new to me sub-genre.

  16. Sunita
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 08:10:02

    @Sirius: I think that’s why I space them out so much, I don’t want to get to the last one! Same with the Nava books, although he is apparently writing a historical series now, set in 19th- and 20th-C California and the southwest.

    @cleo: That sounds like Richard Stevenson’s Donald Strachey series. It begins in the 1970s and carries through to at least the 1990s, and the books are available in ebook form. I talked about the first one at my blog and we did bring up Dan Savage in the comments.

  17. Keishon
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 09:29:06

    @Sunita I didn’t realize until I was downloading the third book that the second book, Death Claims, isn’t available digitally. I guess it’s not that important to read them in order? Very frustrating that all but the second book is available digitally (quick skim of titles). Why would that book not be available? just wondering aloud. I’m sure it’s tied to rights or what have you but from a reader’s view it just doesn’t make much sense.

  18. Sunita
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 09:45:16

    @Keishon: Oh, what a pain. It *is* available, but it’s very restricted. It’s only available in pdf, at the University of Wisconsin Press site and through Kobo (that I found in a quick look).

    I assume that it’s because UW Press still holds the rights to the first two books in digital form, and they haven’t converted the pfds to more readable epub and mobi formats. The pdf itself looks like an image of the printed version rather than a proper digitization. The only good news is that it is available worldwide at UW’s site, so hopefully that’s true for Kobo as well.

  19. Keishon
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 09:55:01

    @Sunita: I didn’t think to look outside Amazon. I should know better. Thanks for looking. Interesting that UW Press made the first book available via Amazon and not the second but you mentioned some formatting snafus for the first few. Must be a challenge for them to provide a decent digital version you think? I know all of this costs money, so….I’ll shut up about it.

  20. Sunita
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 09:59:03

    @Keishon: No, no, I’m glad you brought it up, because I hadn’t realized the UW versions weren’t both available at Amazon (I think they used to be, or at least were there for a while). I’m sure it *is* expensive to redo the digital versions, and I know when I bought them that I was just grateful they were available, but if they want to reach a wider audience (and make some money), having better product would help a lot.

  21. cleo
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 10:12:58

    @Sunita – ah ha! Mystery solved. Thanks.

  22. Sirius
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 11:13:18

    Sunita I am more successful with spacing those series – still to read the third book but with those I know the end already – have his book seven in paperback so of course checked the ending :). I did not know Michael Na va is writing new series. YAY.

  23. Sirius
    Aug 09, 2013 @ 11:24:49

    Meant to add something else – as a warning I guess. Before books three through twelve of these series became available on kindle I did splurge on the paperback omnibus edition. I bought it when it was still available from third party sellers on amazon for relatively sane price. If you are looking into it beware that font is tiny. It is possible to read but I thought I was straining my eyes and now buying the books tor kindle anyway.

  24. cleo
    Aug 10, 2013 @ 22:28:10

    Quick note – I read the Nava yesterday and really enjoyed it, so thanks everyone for the rec and the heads up re the price.

  25. Sunita
    Aug 11, 2013 @ 09:47:58

    @cleo: Oh, I’m so glad to hear that, thanks for letting us know!

  26. NBLibGirl
    Aug 23, 2013 @ 18:58:51

    I’m clearly late to this party but just wanted to acknowledge that I went looking for Joseph Hansen because of Josh Lanyon’s recommendation as well, and have really enjoyed the books I’ve read for all the reasons everyone has already stated above. (I scored big time finding paperback copies of most of them in a used bookstore last January. I think I’m only missing 1 title at this point.) In addition, it’s interesting to see Hansen’s influence on Lanyon.

    I enjoyed the Michael Nava books even more than Hansen’s . . . there is an emotional distance Hansen/Brandstetter maintains with us as his reader that Nava/Rios permits. Also, I’m about the same age as Nava’s characters and their time/place is familiar in a way that Hansen’s is not.

    I heartily recommend both series/authors and am glad to see them being given “new life” with reviews and comments here at DA. The books may not be traditional romances but they are well-written series with interesting characters and hopeful, optimistic endings.

  27. Book Review: Fadeout, Joseph Hansen | Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog
    Aug 24, 2013 @ 11:44:46

    […] read these in order.  I think Dave’s worth getting to know. A big thank you to Sunita for reviewing this book. After her review of it, I bought Fadeout and read it in one sitting (which wasn’t all that […]

  28. Sunita
    Aug 25, 2013 @ 08:00:18

    @NBLibGirl: The Nava mysteries are really good, aren’t they? I am spacing them out and finding I like them even better on the reread, when I find layers I missed the first time. I need to get cracking on my review of the first three.

  29. Recent Reading: Mostly Mystery | Something More
    Sep 17, 2013 @ 23:00:26

    […] Hansen, Fadeout. Thanks to Sunita. I liked Hansen’s spare, elegant prose. I liked his decent, caring detective, Dave […]

  30. Fadeout by Joseph Hansen | Jorrie Spencer
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 18:01:33

    […] does Sunita at Dear Author. These aren’t romances in the genre sense, because the relationship(s) are ongoing […]

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