Joseph Hansen, 81; His Mystery Series Featured Gay Protagonist

Times Staff Writer

Joseph Hansen, a Southern California novelist and poet best known for his groundbreaking mystery series featuring Los Angeles insurance claims investigator Dave Brandstetter, the first major gay protagonist in the mystery genre, has died. He was 81.

Hansen, an activist for sexual rights who wrote for pioneering gay magazines, died Nov. 24 at his home in Laguna Beach, said a family member. The cause was heart failure due to a long respiratory illness.

Five early Hansen novels and a collection of short stories that dealt frankly with homosexual subject matter had been released by small publishers under the pseudonym James Colton when Harper & Row published his first Brandstetter mystery, “Fadeout,” in 1970.

Like other fictional sleuths such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Hansen’s middle-aged protagonist was tough, smart and self-assured. Indeed, Brandstetter was the mystery genre’s typical shamus except for one thing: He dated men instead of women.

“My joke,” Hansen told the Orange County Register in 1998 after moving to Laguna Beach from Culver City, where his home had been wrecked in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, “was to take the true hard-boiled character in American fiction tradition and make him homosexual. He was going to be a nice man, a good man, and he was doing to do his job well.”


Hansen said he admired the mysteries of Ross Macdonald, “but it bothered me that his detective never had any personal life, and he never changed. I thought, ‘This man [Brandstetter] is going to have an ongoing private life like all the rest of us. He was going to meet new people, things are going to happen, he’s going to move from one place to another.’ ”

Hansen, whom reviewers praised for his crisp, lean prose, intricate plots and superb depiction of the idiosyncrasies of life in Southern California from a gay perspective, concluded the series of 12 Brandstetter mysteries in 1991 with “A Country of Old Men.”

By then, as former Times arts editor Charles Champlin wrote in his review of the book, Brandstetter was “rich after the inheritance from his father’s death, is in his late 60s and tired. AIDS and time have diminished his world, and from the start there is a sense not so much of foreboding as of resignation in the novel.”

In summing up the series, Champlin wrote that Hansen “has presented [Brandstetter’s] private lifestyle, loves, jealousies, betrayals with both candor and discretion, with a calm and never-exploitive honesty.”

Mystery writer John Morgan Wilson, the Edgar-winning author of the Benjamin Justice mystery series, which features a gay West Hollywood detective, said he considered Hansen “the most important pioneer in gay mystery writing.”

The Brandstetter character, Wilson told The Times, “was unapologetically gay at a time when gay liberation was really in its infancy in terms of post-Stonewall politics” -- the gay and lesbian political consciousness that emerged in the wake of three days of riots spurred by a 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village.

C. Todd White, a friend of Hansen’s who is researching the history of the gay rights movement in Los Angeles, said the Brandstetter character “never wanted to flaunt his sexuality. All he wanted was for justice to be served, and he wanted to find love in his life. He was painfully normal in that regard.”

Michael Nava, a San Francisco lawyer who writes a series of mysteries featuring gay attorney Henry Rios, said that “Joe pretty much created the whole gay mystery genre.”

“Not that he was just a good gay writer,” Nava said, “but he is right up there with Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald in terms of being one of the great California mystery writers.”

Like Wilson, Nava was influenced by Hansen’s mysteries. He recalled reading gay fiction while he was in law school in the 1970s, most of which were about “a kind of homosexual I couldn’t identify with at all -- sort of a doomed drug-taking queen.”

But, he said, Hansen’s hero was “a professional, he was serious, he was moral and had a strong sense of right and wrong.”

The son of a shoe store operator, Hansen was born in Aberdeen, S.D., in 1923. After his father lost his shoe store in the Depression, the family migrated to Minneapolis in 1933. Three years later, they moved in with in-laws on a 10-acre citrus grove in Altadena.

In 1943, Hansen married Jane Bancroft, with whom he had a daughter, Barbara, who later underwent gender reassignment. Now known as Daniel James Hansen, he is Hansen’s only survivor.

When Out magazine executive editor Bruce Shenitz asked Hansen about his deeply committed and passionate marriage in an interview last year, Hansen said his wife, who died in 1994, “was gay, and so was I.”

What may seem to be a puzzling relationship to others, he said, was “not the least bit puzzling. Here was this remarkable person who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.... We were married 51 years. So something was right about it, however bizarre it may seem to the rest of the world.”

The literature-loving Hansen, who had begun writing as a boy, first saw his name in print in 1952 when the New Yorker magazine began accepting his poems. His poetry also appeared in the Atlantic, Harper’s and Saturday Review.

For a couple of years in the early 1950s, Hansen played an autoharp and sang folk songs as the star of “Stranger from the Sea,” a Sunday night show on Los Angeles radio station KFI-AM. He recorded two record albums, which sold well locally.

From 1962 to 1965, Hansen was an editorial staff member of One magazine, the first successful gay rights magazine in the U.S. He later worked on the magazine Tangents and was a board member of the magazine’s parent company, the nonprofit Homosexual Information Center.

Hansen produced the radio show “Homosexuality Today” on KPFK-FM in 1969, the same year he co-founded the Venice Poetry Workshop. Hansen, who helped coordinate the first Gay Pride Parade in Hollywood in 1970, taught fiction workshops at UC Irvine, UCLA and Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

“Lost on Twilight Road,” the first of his seven novels published under the Colton pseudonym, was released in 1964; the Colton novels concluded with “Todd” in 1971.

While turning out his Brandstetter mysteries, Hansen also wrote two mainstream novels, “A Smile in His Lifetime” (1981) and “Job’s Year” (1983), as well as the suspense novels “Backtrack” (1982) and “Steps Going Down” (1984).

Hansen, who received a Life Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, wrote nearly 40 books, including “Living Upstairs” (1993), the first in a series of semi-autobiographical novels about a struggling young writer in 1940s Hollywood. He also won a Lambda Literary Award for gay men’s fiction.