on 8 April 2007
I've been a fan of Joseph Hansen's writing for some time and I'm especially keen on the Brandstetter whodunnit mystery series.
On one level they are great page-turners, easily read in one sitting. The Raymond Chandler-type story is moved on a few of decades into west coast America of the 1970s and '80s. Instead of private investigator Phillip Marlowe, Hansen's hero is Dave Brandstetter, an insurance investigator doggedly and wearily getting to the bottom or who killed who and why. As with Chandler, no Hansen plot ever lets you down with great endings that often surprise, once all the complex red herrings have been dealt with.
Hansen was a complex gay man (he preferred the word homosexual, rather than gay) who was married to a lesbian and with whom he had a daughter - and this perhaps unsual family situation gave him a unique perspective on life. His fictional hero, Dave Brandstetter is equally complex, in that he is gay but not instantly recognisable as a sterotype and even casts himself as a bit of an outsider. And it is through these eyes, ears and nose that we see the hippy culture of beach house California, we hear the hissing summer lawns of American suburbia, and almost smell the sleazy underbelly hollywood and downtown LA.
For the gay reader (like me) there is also within Hansen's books the added appeal of his portrayal of gay life and the gay scene as it existed from the 1960s through to the 1990s. Each time I read these books I find I pick up on some new thing - a flashback to how things were in the days before AIDS, or else a heart-warming reminder about how things are not that different now. Over the Brandstetter series, some of the pretty skinny beach boy characters grow up into chubbier hairier men, which for the older reader is curiously reassuring.
Early Graves is the ninth book in the Brandstetter series and though written twenty years ago is one which I've only just read. What struck me was how this is now an important period piece about the AIDS era. So much of the early writing about AIDS was apologetic or trying to be educational and it is easy to find books written in the mid to late 1980s on this subject which are patronising, wallowing or just self-indulgent. In Early Graves Hansen does have some explaining to do but this is never intrusive. AIDS provides him with the motive for murders Brandstetter is investigating and a simple whodunnit plot - but it also gives Hansen the opportunity for this mature writer to deal with how we all as humans relate to each other when an ugly crisis stumbles into our lives.