Author: Joseph Hansen
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
Pages/Word Count: 272 Pages
At a Glance: An absolute classic in Gay Fiction
Blurb: Fadeout is the first of Joseph Hansen’s twelve classic mysteries featuring rugged Dave Brandstetter, an insurance investigator who is contentedly gay. When entertainer Fox Olson’s car plunges off a bridge in a storm, a death claim is filed, but where is Olson’s body? As Brandstetter questions family, fans, and detractors, he grows certain Olson is still alive and that Dave must find him before the would-be killer does. Suspenseful and wry, shrewd and deeply felt, Fadeout remains as fresh today as when it startled readers more than thirty years ago.
Review: There is a serious lack, or at least it seems so, of noir fiction in the M/M genre, so getting a nudge from a friend (one who happens to write great mysteries) toward Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter series was like finding a treasure that wasn’t necessarily lost, just obscured by the abundance of romance novels in the genre that have been released since this book’s original publication in 1970.
Admittedly, the noir style is one that may not suit everyone’s taste. The short, choppy sentences and dark atmosphere, along with what is, at times, a stream of consciousness delivery, doesn’t have the customary flow and cadence of other sub-genres. If you love long, lush sentences that go on for paragraphs, noir isn’t a good representation of that writing style. This book is also not written in the first person, which, for whatever reasons, I was anticipating, but not a bit of intimacy is lost in the third person telling, as the author not only weaves a suspenseful narrative but endears his forlorn hero to us at the same time.
While I feel compelled to offer the warning that this is not a romantic book, there is a tragic romanticism to the storyline, for both Dave and for the man whose death he’s investigating, so one’s interpretation of romance, in any and all of its many forms, will come into play. Having said that, now I’ll carry on by also stating that if you love puzzling through a richly layered and subtly nuanced mystery with plenty of suspects, one that will keep you on the hook to the very end, Fadeout is that and more.
The year is 1967. Dave Brandstetter is a death claims investigator for Medallion Insurance, the company owned by his father. He’s looking into what appears on the surface to be the death of Fox Olsen, a popular public figure in the small town of Pima. Fox was many things: a husband, a father, an entertainer, a performer, an aspiring author, a mayoral candidate, and a man with a secret. Fox had just reached the point in his life where he was worth more alive than dead, after years of living hand to mouth. But then he died in an accident that left behind a car but no body, and an insurance policy with a hefty payout. It’s Dave’s job to find Olsen’s body. A corpse and no sign of foul play means his company will have to pay the claim on the one-hundred-fifty thousand dollar policy that, let’s face it, could inspire murderous tendencies in a desperate enough person. Greed and desperation have caused people to do murder for a lot less. No corpse, however, now means it’s Dave’s job to sniff out all the facts behind the incident to prevent a fraudulent payout.
As Dave carries out his investigation, several things happen. Hansen introduces a whole cast of characters from Fox’s past and present, sets each scene, from the location to the bleak tone, through the eyes of a man, Brandstetter, who would never be described as a happy-go-lucky sort. But he’s not necessarily the stereotypical hardboiled detective found in the noir genre either. He doesn’t carry a gun, if you want to get down to the finer points of the detective mystery, although he does enjoy a stiff drink and a cigarette or two on the job. The man is as dark as the quality of his investigation, which plays hand-in-hand with the fact that he pokes at the dirty underbelly of humanity–though the effect of his dourness doesn’t seem to be caused by his job but by a personal loss that informs him now. I wouldn’t say by today’s standards that Dave is openly gay, but by the 1960s’ social norms, Dave lives true to himself. Dave’s father knows his son is gay, and accepts him, which was a pleasant and welcome layer to their relationship, but what’s shaping Dave’s life at this point is the death of his lover, Rod, which is detailed in bits and pieces throughout the story and draws a clear picture of our protagonist as he’s discovering details in his investigation that are adding up to more questions than answers, but which give him a level of empathy that makes him keep pushing through.
As the author leads the reader along to each new revelation and introduction to possible suspects and potential witnesses who can lead Dave to the answers he needs, Hansen allows us to come to some conclusions on our own, but then, no sooner does the investigation seem as if it’s going to be resolved than another twist is thrown in, leading us further through the red herrings and the innocent, though some admittedly motivated, suspects. In his cool methodology and meticulous tenacity, Dave reveals a story of deep, and deeply sad, secrets that affect not only the victim but Dave as well.
I loved his book, for Dave as much as the mystery, so much so that I bought book two before I’d even come close to finishing Fadeout. This is exactly the book you’re looking for if you want a tightly plotted whodunit with a slightly downbeat but nonetheless endearing protagonist.
You can buy Fadeout here: