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

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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What Jayne is reading/watching in early September

What Jayne is reading/watching in early September

Courting the Enemy by Renee Ryan – I liked the first book in this inspie WWII series but even 1/3 of the way through this one still hadn’t got off the ground for me. When I read a book about espionage and spies during wartime, I expect some action. Perhaps I didn’t wait long enough but the part I did read was all multiple pages of characters wondering about each other followed by boring dialogue then more think, think, think time. The final nail in the coffin was a scene in which the heroine turns into an angst bunny and boohoos to the hero, whom she just recently met, about how she thinks she responsible for her cheating husband’s death. They had accidentally met at a nightclub and she could just *see* in his eyes the sudden realization that he was cheating on her which then drove him to get upset which caused him to crash his car. No sweetie, I’m sure he already *knew* he was cheating on you while he was boinking his mistress. DNF

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Spellcast by Barbara Ashford – Despite the tart humor – which I loved – and the insights into theater and summer stock – which I also enjoyed – this one started to flag when the romance and PNR elements got ramped up halfway into it. It sank further as the heroine becomes a Mary Sue who turns out to be *the one* of all the people the hero’s known over lengthy years, who will break a curse. Sorry but I never got why *she’s* special enough to achieve what must be achieved. Plus by the end I felt I was being conked over the head with all the parallels between her life, the other cast members/staff and the musicals being staged. By the last third of the book, the actions of the staff became smothering in a creepy way. Then comes a revelation about the relationship between two of the characters which is ghastly. The ending happens as it seemed destined to but, though I can understand that, I wanted even a glimmer of a romance on the horizon for Maggie. Oh, and the last 30 pages of the book seemed like endless plot point wind up time. D

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40 Tons of Trouble by Connie Flynn – I picked this Harlequin Treasury book up because it’s got a trucker heroine. Make that an 18 wheeler (long haul) trucker heroine. Lots of info about that but, man alive, is this woman stubborn. She needs to be in this he-man’s world but she also needs some sense knocked into her at times. Full review to follow.

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Fool’s Paradise by Tori Phillips – This is another Harlequin Treasury – this time from the Historical line. I had heard this author’s name mentioned in the late 90s/early 2000s as one who used Renaissance settings and had always wanted to try one of her books. The Tudor setting is well utilized but “Everybody Loves (the heroine) Elizabeth.” I mean just about every male in the book falls under her spell. Plus I had hoped the book would end with the commoner hero remaining just that – a commoner. Alas not. Full review to follow.

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What’s up for me next? Well I’ve got a contemporary about matchmaking, another about two doctors in a small town, a third with an HIV positive hero or a historical set in Africa to pick from. Stay tuned for the results.

*****

The Singing Revolution – this is about how Estonia was a free nation before WWII and how the aftermath of the war put an end to that for 60 years. Each year a vast number of its citizens meet for a national singing festival that exemplifies their heritage and pride in their country. When Glasnost opened the door to possibly overthrowing their Soviet overlords, regular citizens banded together, dared to dream and boldly pushed for their freedom. I will admit to having only cursory knowledge about Estonia before watching this documentary but profound admiration for them after finishing it.

Stephen Fry in America – this is a two disc trip with Fry as he drives through (though he flies to Alaska and Hawaii) each US state. I think it’s a good thing to occasionally see your own country through a foreigner’s eyes and Fry is a delightful traveler. With only about 6-8 minutes to spend on each state, some of them unfortunately get shortchanged – especially as he spends 14 minutes each on Alaska and Hawaii for some reason – and the things he picks to see are strange in some cases – all of Ohio’s time is spent on the Kent State shootings – but I like that he is so open to everything he sees and the people he meets. He wants to enjoy it all though he doesn’t hesitate to say when he finds something disappointing. Each disc is almost 3 hours long but the time seemed to fly.

Pageant – this is another documentary. Seems I’ve rented a lot of those lately. Watch 50 men don their best wigs, dresses and makeup as they vie for the Miss Gay America crown. One interesting fact I learned is that the contestants don’t actually have to be gay to enter. o-O Anyway, the time and effort they spend on their costumes – and makeup – is nothing short of amazing while the talent part of the evening is fabulous. This is an event none of them take lightly and all of them passionately want to win.

A Town Called Panic – this is a Belgian animated film and I won’t even attempt to try and describe the plot. “Tag along for the small-town adventures of plastic toys Cowboy (voiced by Stéphane Aubier), Indian (Bruce Ellison) and Horse (Vincent Patar) when they buy 50 million bricks, setting into motion a crazy chain of events at their rambling rural home. Now trekking across distant lands, they end up in another world pludged under water in this film based on the Belgian television series of the same name.” It’s a charming film though I didn’t understand the plot past the half way point. The animation is cute and the exasperated friendship shared by the three toys and their fellow townspeople is infectious.