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literature

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Mystery Fiction: Gay Male  
 
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Anthony Boucher, doyen of crime fiction critics, hailed A Queer Kind of Death in the New York Times Book Review as "beautifully plotted and written with elegance and wit" and exclaimed (to his presumably straight readers), "you must under no circumstances miss it." At the time even gay readers, starved for anything in popular fiction that reflected--however perversely and sensationally--a bit of their own experience, welcomed the trilogy.

But with the self-awareness and pride triggered by Stonewall, a gay reader is now hard pressed to find any virtues beyond campy wit (for example, "A thing of beauty is a boy forever") in these three books. The gay men in Baxt's trilogy have either "chosen" or been "indoctrinated into" their homosexual behavior; they are invariably pictured as "misfits"; and their actions are self-destructive, devious, and unethical in the extreme.

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What is now realized is that the only reason that these books were allowed to be published in the 1960s was that they are fundamentally homophobic. Thirty years later, Baxt brought back Pharoah Love in A Queer Kind of Love (1994) and A Queer Kind of Umbrella (1995), but these too are disappointing.

Gay without Apology: Joseph Hansen's Brandstetter Mysteries

Shortly after Stonewall, a new kind of gay detective novel appeared in Joseph Hansen's Fadeout (1970), the first in a series of twelve novels and two short stories--including Death Claims (1973), Troublemaker (1975), The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of (1978), Skinflick (1979), Gravedigger (1982), Nightwork (1984), Brandstetter and Others (short stories, 1984), The Little Dog Laughed (1986), Early Graves (1987), Obedience (1988), The Boy Who Was Buried This Morning (1990)--that concluded in 1991 with A Country of Old Men.

For the first time in the crime genre, Hansen presented gay men and lesbians in all their variety, without sensation, as simply men and women with understandable desires, triumphs, and frustrations.

Hansen's detective is Dave Brandstetter, a handsome gay male who, in the course of the twenty-one-year series, progresses naturally from middle to old age. In the first four novels he is a claims investigator for a large West Coast insurance company run by his father, and in the last eight he is a freelance detective.

Although Brandstetter is cast somewhat in the mold of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, a determined, largely humorless but compassionate solver of human puzzles, Hansen frames the mysteries he investigates with much more of the detective's private life than one is ever afforded in the Archer series.

At the beginning of Fadeout, the reader sees Brandstetter mourning the death of Rod Fleming, the interior decorator who had been his lover for twenty-five years. As the series progresses, the reader follows the uneasy and ultimately doomed relationship of Brandstetter with Doug Sawyer, a middle-aged artist who is himself mourning the death of a longtime lover; and in the last several novels, Hansen describes the sometimes rocky but fulfilling relationship between Brandstetter and Cecil Harris, a young African-American television newsman who woos Dave relentlessly until he wins his heart.

Also important to the texture of the books are recurring minor characters who are Dave's constant friends: the restaurateur Max Romano, the lesbian designer Madge Dunstan, the gay telephone executive whom Dave has known since high school, his father's young widow Amanda, and several more. With them, Hansen creates a believable world that is at once interesting and inviting.

At the commencement of the series, Hansen also owes much to Ross Macdonald in the area of plotting. Current violence stems from dark secrets in the past, and it is the detective's task to uncover the details of former relationships and actions in order to solve present crimes. Also, the earlier Brandstetter novels deal almost exclusively with gay or bisexual characters and themes.

As the series progresses, however, the plots become less formulaic, and Dave investigates mysteries that have little or nothing to do with homosexuality (such as the dumping of toxic waste, religious cults, and drug dealing). In this progression, Hansen performs a valuable service by showing that gays interact with the straight world in important, meaningful ways. He does this without compromising the integrity of his gay characters, however, and some of the later novels also deal with important issues directly related to being gay, such as homophobia and AIDS.

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