American author Joseph Hansen (1923-2004) was born in South Dakota, the son of a shoe shop owner who lost the business during the Depression, prompting moves to Minneapolis and eventually a citrus grove in California belonging to the author's married sister. Hansen was to spend the rest of his life in California, making a living as a writer and teacher.
Hansen fell in love with a worker at Lockheed's Los Angeles aircraft plant, Jane Bancroft, and married her in 1943. He was gay, she was a lesbian, and they both had affairs, but as the author later remarked, "something was right about it, however bizarre it may seem to the rest of the world." They remained happily together until Jane's death 51 years later, and had a daughter who later underwent gender reassignment.
Hansen penned over 40 books and other works, many with homosexual themes, not widely accepted during the pre-Stonewall 1960s, prompting him to use a pen name with small West Coast publishers. His breakthrough, and the first of his works to use his own name, came with the detective novel Fadeout in 1970. In the St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, Hansen said that "Homosexuals have commonly been treated shabbily in detective fiction - vilified, pitied, at best patronized...I wanted to write a good, compelling whodunit, but I also wanted to right some wrongs. Almost all the things folks say about homosexuals is false. So I had some fun turning clichés and stereotypes on their heads in that book. It was easy."
Fadeout and 11 subsequent books in the series featured Dave Brandstetter, an openly gay insurance investigator/private eye who still had the tough, no-nonsense qualities of the classic hardboiled protagonist. The novels are also known for their colorful descriptive portrayal of Los Angeles during the late 60's and 70's. Hansen was a fan of Ross Macdonald, "but it bothered me 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."
Troublemaker, the third book in the series from 1975, finds Brandstetter investigating the murder of Rick Wendell, the owner of a local gay bar and all-around nice guy. Wendell's body had been discovered by his mother, who found a young man, stark naked, wiping off a revolver with Rick lying dead at his feet. It seems like an open-and-shut case, but Brandstetter digs deeper, both in his job as investigator for Medallion Life Insurance and because he doesn't like easy solutions. What happened to the large sum of money Wendell had just withdrawn from the bar's bank account? And why are the only fingerprints on the gun those of the victim's mother - the beneficiciary of her son's insurance policy?
Hansen wrote compelling dialogue and multi-layered characters, as in this description of the victim's mother:
"She wore jeans, high-top work shoes, an old pullover with a jagged reindeer pattern. Somebody's ski sweater once, somebody even bigger than she was. Her son? She was sixty, but there was nothing frail about her. The hands gripping the grainy rake handle were a man's hands. Her cropped hair was white. She wore no makeup. Her skin was ruddy, her eyes bright blue. Hearty might have described her. Except for her mouth. It sulked. Something had offended her and failed to apologize. Not lately--long ago. A lifetime probably."
The New Yorker said of the Brandstetter series, "Unusual in two respects. One is that the insurance investigator, though ruggedly masculine, is thoroughly and contentedly homosexual, the other is that Hansen is an excellent craftsmen, a compelling writer." And as a nod to Hansen's writing as solid private-eye fiction, not just gay private-eye fiction, the Los Angeles Times called the author, "The most exciting and effective writer of the classic private-eye novel working today." In 1992, Mr. Hansen received a life achievement award from the Private Eye Writers of America.