Hansen, Joseph 1923-
HANSEN, Joseph 1923-
(Rose Brock, James Colton, James Coulton)
PERSONAL: Born July 19, 1923, in Aberdeen, SD; son of Henry Harold (operator of a shoe shop) and Alma (Rosebrock) Hansen; married Jane Bancroft (a teacher and translator), August 4, 1943; children: Barbara Bancroft. Education: Attended public schools in Aberdeen, SD, Minneapolis, MN, and Pasadena, CA, 1929-42.
CAREER: Author and teacher. Member of editorial staff, One, beginning 1962; cofounder and staff member, Tangents, 1965-70; KPFK-FM, Los Angeles, CA, producer of radio show "Homosexuality Today," 1969. Teacher of fiction writing, Beyond Baroque Foundation, Venice, CA, 1975-76; affiliated with the University of California, Los Angeles, 1977-86. Member of advisory board, Wesleyan Writers Conference, 1989-91.
MEMBER: PEN, Mystery Writers of America, Private Eye Writers of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974; British Arts Council grant for lecture tour of Northumberland, 1975; nomination for best novel award, Private Eye Writers of America, 1983, for Gravedigger; nomination for best short story award, Mystery Writers of America, 1984, for "The Anderson Boy"; nomination for best short story award, Private Eye Writers of America, 1987, for "Merely Players"; honored for "outstanding literary contribution to the lesbian and gay communities," Out/Look Foundation, San Francisco, 1991; Lambda Literary Awards, 1992, for Country of Old Men: The Last Dave Brandstetter Mystery, and 1994, for Living Upstairs.
(As James Coulton) Gard, Award Books (New York, NY), 1969.
Fadeout, Harper, (New York, NY), 1970, Alyson Books (Los Angeles, CA), 2000.
(As Rose Brock) Tarn House (gothic novel), Avon (New York, NY), 1971.
Death Claims, Harper (New York, NY), 1973.
(As Rose Brock) Longleaf (gothic novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1974.
Troublemaker: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery, Harper (New York, NY), 1975, Alyson Books (Los Angeles, CA), 2002.
One Foot in the Boat (poetry), Momentum Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1977.
The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of, Holt (New York, NY), 1978.
Skinflick: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery, Holt (New York, NY), 1979.
The Dog and Other Stories (short stories), Momentum Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1979.
A Smile in His Lifetime, Holt (New York, NY), 1981.
Gravedigger: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery, Holt (New York, NY), 1982.
Backtrack, Countryman Press (Woodstock, VT), 1982.
Job's Year, Holt (New York, NY), 1983.
Nightwork, Holt (New York, NY), 1984.
Brandstetter and Others: Five Fictions (short stories), Countryman Press (Woodstock, VT), 1984.
Steps Going Down, Countryman Press (Woodstock, VT), 1985.
The Little Dog Laughed, Holt (New York, NY), 1986.
Early Graves: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1987.
Bohannon's Book: Five Mysteries (short stories), Countryman Press (Woodstock, VT), 1988.
Obedience: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1988.
The Boy Who Was Buried This Morning: A Dave Brandstetter Mystery, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.
A Country of Old Men: The Last David Brandstetter Mystery, Viking (New York, NY), 1991.
Living Upstairs, Dutton (New York, NY), 1993.
Bohannon's Country (short stories), Viking (New York, NY), 1993.
Jack of Hearts, Dutton (New York, NY), 1995.
Blood, Snow, and Classic Cars: Mystery Stories, Leyland Publications (San Francisco, CA), 2000.
Bohannon's Women: Mystery Stories, Five Star (Waterville, ME), 2002.
UNDER PSEUDONYM JAMES COLTON
Lost on Twilight Road, National Library (Fresno, CA), 1964.
Strange Marriage, Argyle Books (Los Angeles, CA), 1965.
The Corruptor and Other Stories (short stories), Greenleaf Classics (San Diego, CA), 1968.
Known Homosexual, Brandon House (Los Angeles, CA), 1968, revised edition published under name Joseph Hansen as Stranger to Himself, Major Books, 1977, published as Pretty Boy Dead, Gay Sunshine Press (San Francisco, CA), 1984.
Cocksure, Greenleaf Classics (San Diego, CA), 1969.
Hang-Up, Brandon House (Los Angeles, CA), 1969.
The Outward Side, Olympia (New York, NY), 1971.
Todd, Olympia (New York, NY), 1971.
Contributor to The New Yorker Book of Poems, Viking (New York, NY), 1974; Literature of South Dakota, University of South Dakota Press, 1976; Year's Best Mystery and Suspense Stories, 1984, Walker, 1985; Murder, California Style, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1987; Mammoth Book of Private Eye Stories, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1988; City Sleuths and Tough Guys, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1989; Under the Gun, Plume, 1990. Also contributor of poems and stories to numerous periodicals, including Harper's, Atlantic, Saturday Review, New Yorker, South Dakota Review, Tangents, Bachy, and Transatlantic Review.
Also editor of collections of essays, including Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution: The Trotskyist View, 1978, and The Leninist Strategy of Party Building: The Debate on Guerrilla Warfare in Latin America, 1982.
ADAPTATIONS: Four of Hansen's poems have been set to music by composer Richard Rodney Bennett in a work entitled Vocalese, first performed in London in 1983, and broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation.
SIDELIGHTS: "When I sat down to write Fadeout in 1967, I wanted to write a good, compelling whodunit, but I also wanted to right some wrongs," Joseph Hansen told the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers. He evidently succeeded on both counts. Fadeout, and Hansen's many subsequent works, represent a breakthrough in detective fiction: The author's popular series hero, Dave Brandstetter, is not only a hardboiled sleuth in the West Coast tradition, but also, according to a Village Voice writer, "one of the few practicing homosexuals in a genre where macho is sine qua non."
"It is fair and useful" to include a gay private eye in the genre, according to Charles Champlin, who asked in the Los Angeles Times, "Why should Mike Hammer have a monopoly on sexuality?" A New York Times Book Review writer added: "The author does not make a big thing out of Brandstetter's sexual habits. His affairs are treated as simply as the heterosexual affairs of other investigators." Hansen once told CA, "For years now my publishers have played down the homosexual element of my novels, preferring as I do that it be taken for granted."
A native of South Dakota, Hansen moved many times in his childhood as his family struggled to survive the Great Depression. Maturing into his teenage years, he admitted in a Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (CAAS) article to being "the most completely asexual child who ever lived." In his early adulthood he identified his sexual orientation as homosexual. And while Hansen devoted his professional career, and much of his personal life, to gay issues, he also fell in love with and married Jane Bancroft, with whom he raised a daughter.
In Hansen's view, honed from a lifetime of writing and reading popular fiction, "almost all the folksay about homosexuals is false. So I had some fun turning cliches and stereotypes on their heads." Getting Fadeout published in the 1960s "took some doing," the author admitted. "Publishers were leery of my matterof-fact, nonapologetic approach to a subject that the rule book said had to be treated sensationally or not at all." Finally, toward the end of 1969, Harper & Row accepted the manuscript. As Hansen took up the story in CAAS, on the day the news came, no one else was home to hear it. "I told our dog, Bantu, who lifted her head, wagged her tail once, lowered her chin . . . and went back to sleep. I told such of our snoozing cats as I could locate. Then I began ringing up anyone I figured there was a chance of reaching. This was the biggest and best news I would ever get in my life, and I simply had to tell someone, anyone. No one answered."
Once Fadeout hit the shelves, critics welcomed Brandstetter to the genre, noting that his creator's light touch regarding the detective's sexuality was a plus. A Saturday Review writer, for example, explained that while homosexuality is "integral" to the story, it is unobtrusive because it "is handled as a condition of life, never as a sensational element." Allen J. Hublin agreed, noting in the New York Times Book Review that the hero's sexual preference plays "so frontal a role" in the novel while remaining almost incidental because "Hansen portrays that other world sharply and without condescension."
For the most part, the later novels in the series garnered similar admiration from reviewers. According to T. J. Binyon in the Times Literary Supplement, Hansen has an "intelligent and sensitive style" that draws readers to plot and characters without eliciting prurient or prudish curiosity about Brandstetter's sex life. Hansen shows gay life "as entitled to its own privacies as any of the more shrill writers [of homosexual literature] do," concluded John C. Davis in the New Republic. Even in Gravedigger, in which the investigator's homosexuality "is pivotal to the relationships, the plot, and the solution," according to a Washington Post Book World writer, the author deals with it "honestly and tastefully and then only when it has a bearing on the story."
To St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers essayist Newton Baird, Hansen's books are "strong in Southern California, particularly Los Angeles, atmosphere. Avid readers can enjoy the details regarding houses, cars, beverages, cooking, friends, enemies and out-of-the-ordinary people and events and find them, like all of Hansen's beautifully styled description and dialogue, a purposeful and meaningful part of characterization."
Hansen's style "is of the Ross Macdonald school—unsentimental, clinical," wrote a New Republic critic. While another New York Times Book Review writer, labeled it "objective" and commented that Hansen "is not one for much preaching." Hansen's novels move quickly, reviewers agree, and usually feature an "intricate, well-machined plot with a superb evocation of the California scene," as a Times Literary Supplement review noted. Commenting on Skinflick in the Washington Post Book World, Jean M. White believed that Hansen "tends to allow the psychos to run away with the plot" in this book, but nonetheless "he still writes crisply with a lean, spare prose that echoes Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald."
Like White, other reviewers sometimes voiced criticism of a specific work while praising the Brandstetter series in general. Stephen Dobyns found the abundance of detail in Nightwork problematic, commenting in the Washington Post that Hansen's "keen sense of detail" is to be applauded, yet, in this work, it sometimes "creates decorative clutter." Appreciating the author's vivid evocation of the gay world and the strange characters that inhabit it—a much-noted feature of the mysteries—Robin M. Winks commented in the New Republic that in Gravedigger "the concern for the milieu gets in the way."
Critics in general attribute part of Hansen's success to the sensitivity and subtlety with which he addresses larger social issues through Brandstetter's views and activities. Several critics have pointed out that a social evil, such as political graft, pollution, or religious fraud, often lies at the heart of the investigator's cases. The author also uses his fast-paced, whodunit genre to illuminate an aspect of society or human nature without making pointed "moral" judgments. Davis considered Skinflick, for example, to be as much about "the ways in which people twist their moralities to meet their needs" as about an investigator using his wits to win against the "bad guys." Nightwork, beyond being a sharp mystery, "has a more serious concern, which is simply how human beings treat each other," added Dobyns. The book's message, he felt, is that "one must treat one's fellow creatures with decency, respect and perhaps love."
The author's concern for how humans treat their fellow humans—and how they think about them—is addressed more fully in several novels outside the Brandstetter series. In Backtrack, Hansen "wanted to say something about the way parents cut their kids out of their own relationship, from selfishness," the author told Barbara A. Bannon in a Publishers Weekly interview. A mystery, the book features an eighteen-year-old protagonist who discovers aspects of his dead father's life that lead him to the novel's strange denouement—the boy waiting for a killer to come to him. Terry Teachout commented in the National Review that the story "lies well outside the canon of [the author's] popular David Brandstetter mystery series" and is, in fact, "a short, pithy Bildungsroman disguised as a suspense novel." While a New Yorker critic labeled it a "slight and often silly story," Callendar called it "a brilliant piece in which even flashbacks are handled convincingly." Backtrack "is enriched by the judicious artistic effects that Hansen obtains through the use of his striking style," Teachout claimed. Noting that it is not a happy book, Callendar expressed a fascination with its "sad, bitter ending," concluding that it is "a book that commands respect."
A Smile in His Lifetime concentrates on Whit Miller, a bisexual who finds himself growing apart from his wife and towards a purely homosexual existence. In the Washington Post Book World, Christopher Schlemering called it "a 'serious' change-of-pace novel" for Hansen. "The emotional landscape is bleak, lonely," explained Avery Corman in the New York Times Book Review. For Whit Miller, "sex does not buy happiness, nor do fame and money." Corman went on to comment that the author "has chosen a tough, staccato style for this novel, and it works against much of the emotional material, making it appear melodramatic. . . . Despite the lean quality of the prose, the novel is weakened by the author's decision to tell us too much." Still, conceded Schlemering, the humor in the novel presents yet another aspect of Hansen's skill.
Hansen once told CA that he regards Job's Year as his "best and most important novel," and Stanley Johnson agreed in the Oregonian, writing, "It is clearly one of the most impressive novels" of 1983, one which invites "comparison with the very best of modern fiction." Job's Year, like Backtrack and A Smile in His Lifetime, concentrates on a man who reaches a point in life where the past impinges on his view of his present life. A homosexual actor returns to his family home to care for a dying sister. Characters and scenes from the past and present mix to present a novel that treads "the fine line between faith and modern existentialism," wrote Paul Levine. His Los Angeles Times review compared the work to "a walk along the tight-ropes between madness and sanity." The book works well, Levine felt, because "Hansen is at his best, moving from past to present, memories unlocked by a change of light, smell of perfume, feelings of love, lust, loneliness." A "quieter" book than Backtrack or A Smile in His Lifetime, Job's Year contains a subtlety similar to that which reviewers noted favorably in Hansen's treatment of Brandstetter's sexuality. Summarized Levine, "[The plot and characters are] brought to life with grace, style, and subtle surety."
Steps Going Down is another of Hansen's non-Brandstetter mysteries in which the former male prostitute Darryl Cutler becomes infatuated with an amoral youth who leads him to murder. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Callendar described the novel as the "study of the disintegration of a human being." In spite of an ending which Callendar believed is manipulative, he praised the novel as "in its way a brilliant piece of work."
Returning to the Brandstetter series in 1986, Hansen published The Little Dog Laughed, which Margaret Cannon described in the Globe and Mail as "a novel as topical as tomorrow's news." In the book Hansen tells the tale of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who may have been killed for the notes to the Central American story he is working on. Hansen's politics, Cannon wrote, are "no secret" and he makes his "contempt [known] for U.S. conservatives whose idea of support for democracy is support for guerrilla training at home and genocide abroad." Following in a similarly topical vein, Early Graves is another Brandstetter novel whose villain is a murderer whose victims are young homosexuals with AIDS. In the New York Times Book Review, Callendar wrote that while the book is "well-plotted and well-written," the "major emphasis of the book is about AIDS and the fear, even hysteria, it creates among otherwise rational people." Time contributor William A. Henry III wrote that Early Graves will "rank with the best" of the novels dealing with the impact of AIDS; John Gross called it "an unqualified success" in the New York Times.
Obedience finds Brandstetter on the brink of retirement, but called back to investigate a murder possibly committed by a Vietnam veteran living in a Vietnamese community. Cannon called Obedience "absolutely the best ever" Brandstetter book, and Gross wrote, "I do hope this isn't really Dave Brandstetter's last bow." It is not. Brandstetter solves another mystery with a political, socially-conscious slant in The Boy Who Was Buried This Morning, which involves, according to Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times Book Review, a "paramilitary outfit of crypto-fascists bent on purging a small California town of its minority residents."
In A Country of Old Men: The Last David Brandstetter Mystery, published in 1991, Hansen deals with both crime and mortality. Stasio noted that Brandstetter's health is failing, though his mind is keen, as he investigates a killing and the child who witnessed it. In the end, Stasio noted that although Brandstetter, with his cool, reserved, rational personality, may stay silent around "people who are hurting . . . he cares. . . . He has always cared a lot. And that's why we'll miss him."
Since ending the Brandstetter series, Hansen has written many short stories about the straight detective Hack Bohannon. Bohannon's Country, published in 1993, features three tales about the titled hero. A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked that "Hansen is in top form, delighting readers with surprising, often risk-taking, fiction." Bohannon's Women: Mystery Stories, which followed in 2002, included five more stories about Hack. In this volume, Hack's wife, who had floated in and out of a coma in Bohannon's Country, is dead, and he is dating a woman named T. Hodges. Whitney Scott praised Bohannon's Women in Booklist, saying of Hansen's sleuth that "this appealing central figure and Hansen's sure, deft hand with both exterior and interior landscapes leave readers wishing for more."
Hansen once told CAAS in 1993 that, along with celebrating his fiftieth wedding anniversary, he planned a series of twelve novels about Nathan Reed, covering ages seventeen to seventy. "Unrealistic for a writer crowding seventy himself? I didn't think so. One of my reasons for ending the Dave Brandstetter series was to clear the time. I was going to be writing, anyway, for as long as I could sit up and think, and I wanted to give some shape to my own life and times."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 17, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 38, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Armchair Detective, summer, 1984.
Booklist, May 1, 1993, Ray Olson, review of Bohannon's Country, p. 1573; July, 2002, Whitney Scott, review of Bohannon's Women: Mystery Stories, p. 1826.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), May 19, 1984; February 28, 1987; August 5, 1989.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2002, review of Bohannon's Women, p. 618.
Lambda Book Report, September-October, 1993, John L. Myers, review of Bohannon's Country, p. 37.
Library Journal, May 1, 1993, Rex E. Flett, review of Bohannon's Country, p. 121.
Listener, June 5, 1975; January 11, 1979.
Los Angeles Times, April 9, 1982; December 16, 1983.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 26, 1984; May 5, 1985.
National Review, May 28, 1982; December 24, 1982.
New Republic, April 12, 1980; May 30, 1981; August 2, 1982.
Newsweek, June 7, 1982.
New Yorker, November 5, 1979; February 7, 1983.
New York Times, December 4, 1987; December 2, 1988; June 3, 1990.
New York Times Book Review, September 20, 1970; January 21, 1973; December 2, 1973; December 28, 1975; November 4, 1979; October 12, 1980; June 28, 1981; September 20, 1981; May 30, 1982; January 16, 1983; April 8, 1984; January 19, 1986, p. 17; December 27, 1987, p. 13; June 3, 1990, p. 32; June 16, 1991, p. 21.
Oregonian, October 24, 1983.
Publishers Weekly, December 17, 1982; July 29, 1989, Penny Koganoff, review of Bohannon's Book: Five Mysteries, p. 216; March 29, 1993, review of Bohannon's Country, p. 38; June 28, 1993; December 5, 1994.
Saturday Review, September 26, 1970; February, 1973.
Time, November 4, 1985, pp. 83, 86; February 1, 1988, p. 66.
Times Literary Supplement, December 1, 1978; June 6, 1980; October 26, 1984.
Village Voice, December 15, 1975.
Washington Post Book World, September 21, 1975; October 21, 1979; November 16, 1980; June 7, 1981; April 18, 1982; October 16, 1983.
West Coast Review of Books, May, 1982; November, 1983.
Wilson Library Bulletin, December, 1993, Gail Pool, review of Bohannon's Country, p. 86.*