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Tom Chaney: Down these mean streets

Of Writers And Their Books: "Down these mean streets. . . ." Tom says Joseph Hansen has a deft pen for describing the landscape with special relevance to the plot. This column first appeared 21 March 2010.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Fragments of Deceit

By Tom Chaney

"Down these mean streets. . . ."

In 1950 Raymond Chandler defined the hardboiled detective genre, according to critic Terry D'Aury. "Down these mean streets must go a man who is not himself mean. . . ."

I have just finished reading one of my favorite hardboiled detective writers whose main character is not really a detective like Sam Spade, but who sets out down the mean streets to right wrongs.

In this case the writer is Joseph Hansen and the detective/insurance investigator is his Dave Brandstetter, hero of some twelve wrong-righting, good whodunits with a difference.

I just finished rereading number five, The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of published in 1978 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. The difference is that Dave Brandstetter is not only smart, shrewd and compassionate, he is also gay -- "matter-of-factly, oh-by-the-way, but openly gay. In 1967!"

Hansen, who died in 2004 at age 81, admired the mysteries of Ross Macdonald, "but it bothered me," he observed, "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."

And so Brandstetter comes in The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of to a small coastal town near Los Angeles called La Caleta to investigate the death claim for his father's former insurance company.

Police Chief Ben Orton has been murdered. His wife and his son are due to split the $75,000 death benefit. The daughter has been removed from the policy in the past. The cops have nabbed gay activist Cliff Kerlee who had threatened the chief's life publicly.

And so matters stand until Brandstetter arrives.

Nothing fits.

The family won't talk. Townsfolk are mum, but raise too many questions. Why won't the newswoman talk? Why does she send her attractive young cameraman after Dave?

"Is anyone not lying?"

Dave peels the layers of the onion of truth -- confronting death in the sun-drenched California landscape -- near the core.

And speaking of the sun-drenched landscape, Hansen has a deft pen for describing the landscape with special relevance to the plot. Early on he is planning to enter the chief's estate the hard way. "The red gums grew beside a whitewashed adobe wall six feet high. They'd been planted away from it but a long time ago. Their thick pink trunks pushed it now. It would fall soon. But not today. Up to his ankles in tattered brown bark, Dave leaned against the wall to get back his breath. . . . Then he jumped, hauled himself up, legged over the wall, and dropped into a patio where it was abruptly cool and moist."

We first meet Dave in Fadeout published in 1970. He is then a middle aged investigator. Through the twelve novels he ages drastically. The young cameraman, Cecil, becomes Dave's companion in this novel and they remain faithful through the next seven as Cecil becomes almost the caregiver to the aging investigator. This relationship is in abrupt contrast to Dave's father, dying in this novel. At his hospital bedside is his fifth or sixth wife.

Hansen, born in 1923, died in 2004. Like most of my favorite mystery writers, he stopped writing much too soon.

Hansen tackled a number of socially conscious themes in his later Brandstetter novels. In Skinflick (1979) he deals with pornography; Early Graves (1987) focuses on the AIDS epidemic; the Vietnamese subculture is at the basis of Obedience (1988).

As the best demonstration of how Hansen has his hero age, Brandstetter is brought back from retirement in 1991 in A Country of Old Men.

Hansen, dealing with gay culture and detection, roughly parallels the career of Tony Hillerman, who breaks new ground with his Native American detectives -- revealing another unfathomed heart.

Both take us over the hill to unfamiliar landscapes of the human experience. And, to my mind, that is what good fiction ought to do.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

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