Joseph Hansen Essay - Critical Essays


In the article “The Mystery Novel as Serious Business,” Joseph Hansen sketched his ideas on a writer’s responsibility and the serious purpose of the detective genre. In his view, the mystery novel, treated as serious business, has a unique capacity to work the “kind of magic” that any fine writer possesses. “A good and honest novel lets us experience for a brief while what it is like to be another human being, someone with a different background and a different set of problems,” writes Hansen. The Brandstetter novels are, therefore, aimed at a general audience, not a gay audience. Hansen maintains that the mystery of death, in which lives unfold within the framework of a compelling story, will illuminate some aspect of the mystery of life.

Naturally, one aspect of human life that Hansen consistently demystifies is homosexuality. Brandstetter is ordinary but always human, with expectations, jealousies, and occasionally a lovers’ quarrel, all carefully crafted by Hansen. A variety of homosexual and bisexual characters appear in the Brandstetter novels, none stereotyped or unbelievable. Gay subculture is encountered but never dominates. Troublemaker (1975) centers on the murder of an owner of a gay bar and Early Graves (1987) on the serial murders of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) victims, but the sexual preference of victims or their friends is never sensationalized. It is simply an aspect of their lives, although they or others may feel secretive or uncomfortable about it.

While demystifying homosexuality, Hansen renders human sexuality a complex phenomenon and the enterprise of categorizing individuals a risky business. The unhappiest people are those who hide or do not accept who they are. Sex or sexual preference is not portrayed as the problem—the absence of self-acceptance is. In A Smile in His Lifetime (1981), a novel outside the Brandstetter series, the emotional landscape of Whit Miller is very bleak. Miller is a bisexual who is growing apart from his wife and toward a largely homosexual existence, something he has been struggling with since the day he was married. Gender confusion is an idea consistently raised by Hansen. Brandstetter frequently catches fleeting glimpses of a fleeing felon or someone who has struck him from behind that may have been a young man or may “have been a her.” It is always “too dark.”

In addition to demystifying homosexuality, Hansen draws parallels between the personal issues and love relationships of his detective and those of the characters he is investigating. In Fadeout, Brandstetter’s lover has just died of cancer. While investigating a murder, Brandstetter clears one young man of the crime, and the young man later becomes his new lover. One love fades out; another fades in. In Death Claims (1973), Brandstetter and the new lover are drifting apart. Each lays claim to the memory of a dead lover. Brandstetter investigates the death of a female bookseller who struggled to survive through skin graft surgery, nurtured by the love of a younger woman. Finding the murderer, he restores the young woman’s belief in herself and her strength to survive. Brandstetter and his lover bury the past and restore their relationship. Plot, theme, and title run parallel. Troublemaker involves a pair of interlopers. One tries to break up Brandstetter’s relationship with his lover, and another is the killer of a bar owner. Brandstetter locates the murderer, one of the victim’s associates, and the other interloper, saving his relationship.

Brandstetter is in the business of reconstructing people’s lives and discovering their meaning, both personal and social. Hansen, the writer, parallels the detective he created. He believes that the mystery novel “ought to look straight at the real world . . . concern itself with real problems that face real people.” Early Graves, the ninth Brandstetter novel, exemplifies this stand. It opens with Brandstetter returning home from a business trip to find an unknown dead man on his doorstep. The victim appears to be the latest casualty of a serial killer of young gay men who are all dying of AIDS. Someone left the body for Brandstetter to find, and he wants to know why, a desire that leads him on a search through lives filled with grief, as families and lovers face the hard truth about AIDS. At the same time, Brandstetter is grieving about the premature end of his live-in relationship with Cecil Harris. Cecil, a young black reporter, in an act of misplaced pity, married an underage blind girl (in The Little Dog Laughed, 1986) to save her from her abusive, gold-digging mother. Eventually, the serial murderer meets an early grave—and Cecil’s marriage does also.

Many critics attribute Hansen’s success to the subtlety and sensitivity with which he confronts contemporary social issues through Brandstetter’s actions and opinions as the character ages. Critics point out that some social evil or problem—AIDS, political graft, secret military operations in Central America,...

(The entire section is 2083 words.)