Thursday, August 03, 2017

The first gay detective?

A Goodreads friend intrigued me with his recommendation of author Joseph Hansen's 12 classic mysteries featuring Dave Brandstetter, who is perhaps the genre's first openly gay detective. The first book, Fadeout, was written in 1970, when most detectives on the page were hard-boiled macho guys with dames on their arms, so the fact that Brandstetter's love life featured prominently in these books was unusual (and quite daring) for the times.

Brandstetter is not exactly a detective, but his job as an insurance investigator ends up serving the same purpose for mystery fans. In the first book, radio personality Fox Olson has presumably died; his car plunged off a bridge in the middle of a violent storm, but while the car has been found, the body wasn't in it. His widow (backed up by local law enforcement) insists that the body must have been thrown free and will inevitably be discovered down-river once the run-off subsides; but Dave's not so sure. He is reluctant to pay out the life insurance premium with no body, so before he makes his final recommendation, he decides to do a little investigating of his own. Before you know it, past relationships and present rivalries in Olson's life lead Brandstetter to believe that Olson may have faked his death and fled to make a new start.

The side story to this investigation is Dave's personal life. His long-time lover has just died of cancer, and Dave has returned to work on this case after a period of being immobilized by the pain and heartache of this loss. His struggles to do his job in the midst of his grief are poignant.

I liked the personality and inner thoughts of Brandstetter in this novel, but I also enjoyed the quirky personalities of the minor characters he brings in for a few moments of play, including Dave's father (an aging Lothario on wife number four), and his best friend, Madge. I also enjoyed the setting (he is based in Los Angeles and wanders outwards from there)--it has sort of a west coast noir feel, and of course it's always fun to read something set in your own town. But most of all, I liked the writing. This isn't a long book (under 200 pages), but while the style is spare, it is also profound and evocative of tightly held but deeply felt emotions. And lest I forget, the mystery itself is intriguing, especially in the way that Brandstetter moves from one personality or clue to another and cobbles it all together in his mind. Given that it was written in 1970, there are inevitably a few anachronisms and clich├ęs; but the book is surprisingly fresh, given that it's 47 years old! Having read the first, I feel compelled to read the rest, which is always the test, isn't it?

(The library owns #s 5, 7, 9, and 12, but the rest are still in publication. Looks like my Kindle is going to get a workout.)

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