Joseph Hansen

Creator of Brandstetter, the gay private eye
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The Independent Online

Joseph Hansen, mystery writer and gay rights activist: born Aberdeen, South Dakota 19 July 1923; married 1943 Jane Bancroft (died 1994; one daughter); died Laguna Beach, California 24 November 2004.

Not many mystery writers can be said to have turned the genre upside down, especially with their first novel - but this is precisely what was said of the American writer Joseph Hansen when Fadeout was published in 1970.

The book was greeted with lavish praise as well as outrage, since its private-eye hero, Dave Brandstetter, was tough, cool, clever, and gay. As Hansen remarked much later, "The message that homosexuals are no different from other people hardly seems earth-shaking - at least not to men and women of goodwill and common sense."

Even so, publication was only a year or so after the Stonewall riots, and there were bookstores in the heartlands of America which refused to stock the book, and preachers in the deep South who called it pornographic. Ironically, Hansen had in fact written pornography during the 1960s for one of the main porn genre publishers Brandon House, though under a pseudonym.

Ironically, too, Brandstetter wasn't quite the very first gay detective. Apart, of course, from Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin (some critics say yes, some say no), that title must go to George Baxt's Pharaoh Love, a black New York cop who first appeared in A Queer Kind of Love in 1967, and led a sleuthing existence against a background akin to (as one critic put it) a gossip column in Women's Wear Daily. In any case, Baxt killed him off a year later.

Hansen's main point in Fadeout was that Brandstetter was a good detective who did his job well and (not but) whose sexual orientation just happened to be other than that of "Mr and Mrs Average American". This, Hansen showed, in a laid-back, coolly humorous style, did not affect the way he went about his business, although over the years it gave him one or two sideways insights into his various clients' behaviour that maybe a straight sleuth might not have been vouchsafed. Whatever, it certainly didn't make him any kind of threat.

It helped that Fadeout was an excellent mystery with a solid plot, although Hansen couldn't stop himself utilising a detective-story cliché and turning it on its head - Brandstetter, a world-weary, middle-aged insurance claims investigator, clears a young man of murder and then falls for him. Shades of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane!

Joseph Hansen was born in Aberdeen, South Dakota, in 1923, and educated in public schools in Aberdeen and Minneapolis. His early life was spent doing a variety of jobs; when he moved to the West Coast he worked for the Pickwick Bookshop in Los Angeles. An early friend was Martin Block, who helped launch ONE magazine, "the nation's first magazine for homosexuals", in 1952. Hansen began writing for ONE in the 1960s, under the pseudonym James Colton. In 1964 his first novel was published, Lost on Twilight Road, under the Colton name.

Throughout the 1960s he wrote paperback originals for adults-only publishers such as Argyle Books, and Brandon House of North Hollywood, whose imprints include Barclay House and the notorious Essex House, which published the "Tarzan" porn of the science-fiction writer Philip José Farmer. Fellow writers of Hansen/ "Colton" rejoiced in names such as Stark Cole, Cherry Black and Roland Everhard. He also wrote for the American arm of Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press.

Deciding to "go legit" in 1967, Hansen wanted to write a compelling whodunit. The writing did not take too long but getting the book into print was another matter. It took three years. Publishers shied away from a "serious" gay private eye (as opposed to the high camp extravagances of George Baxt), until finally the legendary Joan Kahn of Harper's read the manuscript.

Not only had Kahn nurtured most of the leading American detective fiction writers from the 1940s on, but she had a track record with "experiments". She had been the first American editor to take the philosophical suspense stories of the Swiss novelist Freidrich Dürrenmatt and had taken a chance with John Ball's In the Heat of the Night (1965), which featured one of the first serious black detectives, Virgil Tibbs.

Kahn used to deny that she was a trend-spotter, and had a theory that mystery fiction meandered along until "a good big" story came along out of the blue and after that "there'd be a patter of little typewriter feet in that direction". Hansen's Fadeout was the "good big story" for gay detectives; over 30 years later, there are small and large press imprints that publish solely gay and lesbian mystery and suspense fiction.

Hansen continued to write Dave Brandstetter novels, although, taken as a whole, the series is patchy, the earlier books perhaps less conventional and better plotted. As "Rose Brook", Hansen wrote a couple of Gothics, and he also composed poetry (One Foot in the Boat, 1977).

For most of his career, he was actively associated with gay and lesbian rights, was one of the founders of the Homosexual Information Center in Los Angeles, and helped organise the first Gay Pride parade there in June 1970.

But in his own way, by pioneering a gay hero in a popular fiction genre that, up until he started writing, had generally treated homosexuals as figures of fun or contempt, Hansen did as much as anyone to break down barriers of ignorance and bigotry.

Jack Adrian