Joseph Hansen, Detective Novelist and LGBTQ+ Activist

Posted on Tue., June 25, 2024 by Sarah Francis
Black-and-white photo of person typing with cigarette in mouth.

Joseph Hansen at a typewriter, photographer unknown, 1969. Joseph Hansen Papers. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The Huntington celebrated LGBTQ+ Pride Month on June 7 with its 10th annual “An Evening Among the Roses” event. This year’s event highlighted the institution’s involvement in Hidden Histories: Discovering Los Angeles’ LGBTQ+ Collections, a project created by ONE Archives at the USC Libraries and the USC-affiliated LA as Subject research alliance.

The goal of Hidden Histories is to create an aggregated list of LGBTQ+ archival material held in California institutions, especially in the southern part of the state, so that researchers and community members can learn what resources are available. The Huntington contributed more than 30 collections to the project, including materials related to photography, literature, architecture, and history.

Among these materials are the papers of Los Angeles writer and LGBTQ+ activist Joseph Hansen (1923–2004), known primarily for his detective novels. The Hansen collection includes drafts of published and unpublished work, correspondence, professional papers mainly related to publishing, and personal and family papers.

Hansen, who spent part of his childhood on a citrus farm in Altadena, California, grew up to become a poet and cross-genre author. His best-known books feature private investigator Dave Brandstetter, who first appeared in the novel Fadeout. Hansen finished the first draft in 1967, a notable year in the gay liberation movement. That January, police brutality at the Black Cat Tavern, a gay bar in LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood, provoked LA’s first organized protest in favor of LGBTQ+ rights the following month.

Book cover with a car crashed into a garden fence and lightning in a darkened sky.

Holt, Rinehart, and Winston edition of Joseph Hansen’s novel Fadeout, 1980. Joseph Hansen Papers. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Fadeout was published in 1970, a pivotal year for both Hansen and the fledgling gay rights movement. That year, the first three Gay Pride parades were held in LA, New York, and Chicago on June 28, the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Hansen helped organize the march on the West Coast.

Before 1970, Hansen had published several books under pen names to establish some distance between himself and his writing, which often addressed queer identity and culture. But with the genesis of Brandstetter, Hansen stepped out from behind his pen names, returning to them only occasionally. (Hansen would go on to write 11 more novels featuring this character.)

He admired the case-hardened protagonists in the detective novels of Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler. Hansen’s investigator is similar to these characters in integrity, fortitude, and their penchant for liquor, but he also differs from them in noteworthy ways. For starters, Brandstetter is openly and unapologetically gay, and his personal life is pointedly developed, with an extensive circle of friends and family. In Fadeout, Brandstetter has just lost his long-term partner to cancer, and by the end of the series, he’s been with another partner, Cecil, for many years. He loses his father over the course of the series but remains close with one of his father’s many ex-wives. When arriving home after a long day on the job, he’s never surprised to find an unannounced friend or two inside, cooking dinner. While ruthless in pursuit of a perpetrator, Brandstetter is presented first as a well-adjusted human and second as an investigator who just happens to be gay.

Yet, it is because Brandstetter is queer that he is often able to identify queer-coded clues invisible to straight society; in Fadeout, he picks up on a clandestine queer relationship at the heart of the novel’s murder plot well before the dead man’s widow. Like many novels written in the same era, Hansen’s novels can be dated in their handling of race and gender, but his books typically feature a diverse cast of characters living complex lives against the backdrop of LA and Southern California in the second half of the 20th century. It’s evident that he aimed to write socially progressive and educational works using the mystery novel conceit as a blueprint.

A typewritten letter.

Joseph Hansen, “Why I Wrote Early Graves,” ca. 1987. Joseph Hansen Papers. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

In Early Graves, Hansen’s ninth Brandstetter book, the investigator searches for an LA serial killer targeting gay men who have HIV/AIDS. Throughout Early Graves, Brandstetter corrects homophobic misapprehensions about the disease and how it is transmitted, lessons that Hansen clearly felt were still needed in 1987, when the book was published. Homophobia surged as HIV/AIDS spread, reversing substantial gains made by the gay rights movement.

Hansen used his novels to chronicle significant shifts in gay life between 1970 and the early 1990s, as well as to work though his own feelings about these shifts. He grappled with how to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, putting off what he knew would be painful work until—as he describes in a manuscript in The Huntington’s collection—he found a path forward through his writing. He writes: “When AIDS came along, I began to be asked when I was going to write about it. I began to ask myself. However unpleasant life has often been for homosexuals in the past, AIDS was and is the grimmest reversal we have ever faced. How could I not write about it? I had no choice. And I must write about it in a Dave Brandstetter book—those are the ones people read. There was so much to tell, so much ugly truth to get on paper, and all in the frail framework of a mystery novel, a tale meant to puzzle and amuse and keep the idle reader turning pages to find out in the end who killed Cock Robin. Then the telephone rang again. Another old friend, long since moved from my city to the middle west, had died of AIDS. It was time to sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”

Ultimately, Hansen felt that it was his responsibility as a visible, articulate member of the gay community to respond to political moments, and he fought for LGBTQ+ rights throughout his lifetime, growing bolder as he aged. He became involved with ONE magazine, one of the first and most important publications featuring work by queer writers about queer issues, joining the editorial board in 1962. After ONE disbanded amid internal strife, Hansen co-founded a new publication, Tangents, with gay activist and ONE founder Don Slater. While ONE magazine ceased publication in 1967, the educational and activist branch of the venture, the ONE Institute, survived and eventually became the ONE Archives, part of the USC Libraries since 2010.

Magazine cover of a man dressed as a Roman soldier sitting casually in a chair.

Cover of the August 1965 issue of ONE magazine. Joseph Hansen Papers. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Near the end of his life, according to a 2004 obituary in the Guardian, Hansen wrote that he had tried “to hang on to the belief that a movie is about to be filmed of one of my books, thus certifying to Americans that I really am a writer.” This hope is not surprising, given that he had made his home in Southern California, where the entertainment industry plays an outsized role. While Hansen’s dream of a screen adaptation eluded him during his lifetime, perhaps it will soon be fulfilled: In 2023, it was announced that the Brandstetter series is in development for Netflix. Hansen’s books will also continue to reach new audiences the old-fashioned way: All 12 Brandstetter books have recently been reissued by Soho Syndicate, with distribution through Random House. The colored spines, fittingly, create a rainbow on a bookshelf.

Sarah Francis is the assistant curator of literary collections at The Huntington.