EARLY GRAVES is the ninth Dave Brandstetter mystery, the first, FADEOUT, having appeared in 1970. Well received by critics, the Brandstetter novels are distinguished in the genre by the fact that their hero is gay; thus, gay characters are treated as full members of the human race. It must be added that Hansen is a skilled stylist who has mastered the hard-boiled detective story as well as anybody in the field today: If Brandstetter were straight as string, he would still be a well-noted fictional private eye.
Set in and around Los Angeles, EARLY GRAVES involves Brandstetter in a series of stabbing murders. The victims are all relatively young gay men suffering from AIDS. The fresh corpse of one of these men winds up almost literally on Brandstetter’s doorstep, the detective’s business card at its feet. Thus, Brandstetter is drawn into the case, looking for connections between the victims, coming face to face with the grim reality of AIDS, and trying to fend off a chillingly efficient killer. Along the way, he also sorts out his love life and exposes a bit of political corruption.
Light on violence, EARLY GRAVES is fast-paced and entertaining. As the title suggests, and as is customary in better-quality detective novels, the book also treats serious themes. In addition to providing some AIDS education, Hansen explores the nature of human relationships, gay and otherwise, and takes the reader into the world of high-stakes real-estate development.
While the book’s plot is not utterly convincing, in this genre character is everything. Like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer before him, Dave Brandstetter is a modern-day knight errant, tough, compassionate, and doggedly determined to get at the truth.