Joseph Hansen’s novels featuring David Brandstetter, the sympathetic and wary insurance claims investigator who happens to be gay, are unusual in a genre in which machismo is an essential element. Writing in the tradition of Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler, Hansen is clinical, unsentimental, and compelling. Over the years, Brandstetter finds a lover and learns more about himself. As Hansen moves his private investigator about, he provides a sense of the ordinariness of gay life. His intelligent and sensitive style draws readers to the plot and characters, stressing the universal characteristics of his hero’s homosexual lifestyle. Although his novels fit into the Sam Spade-Philip Marlowe-Lew Archer mold—aging detective, sunny California, a society rife with corruption—Hansen provides fresh angles, third-person narrative, coolly realistic locales, and flawless dialogue to demonstrate the ways in which people juggle their morals to suit their needs. In the process, Hansen creates complex human experiences and enriches the mystery and detective genre.
Though Hansen was not the first to depict a gay detective—George Baxt preceded him by several years with novels featuring flamboyant black homosexual detective Pharoah Love—Hansen was recognized for his skillful and sensitive treatment of gays as human beings. Hansen’s Gravedigger (1982) was nominated for the 1983 Shamus Award as best novel, and he received an Edgar nomination in 1984 for “The Anderson Boy” and a Shamus nomination in 1987 for “Merely Players.” The Out/Look Foundation in 1991 honored Hansen for outstanding contributions to the lesbian and gay communities, and he won Lambda Literary Awards in 1992 for Country of Old Men (1991) and in 1994 for Living Upstairs (1993). He received the Private Eye Writers of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.