A Queer Eye on the Mean Streets Commentary by Terry D'Auray

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A Queer Eye on the Mean Streets

The Agony Column for November 20, 2003
Updated with new Illustrations March 1, 2004
Commentary by Terry D'Auray

Raymond Chandler defined the "mean streets".
Back in 1950, Chandler's "Down these mean streets must go a man who is not himself mean ..." defined the hardboiled detective genre. Notice, though, that while the detective must not himself be mean, he need not himself, be straight. Now that the Fab Five of 'Queer Eye' are making an entertainment out of teaching straight men to hate polyester and clean their bathtubs, and doing their bit to make the world a better place, it's a good time to revisit two authors who made the mystery-reading world a better place by writing entertaining, satisfying and long-running detective series featuring gay protagonists. One series is old, relatively; the other newer, relatively. And unfortunately, neither author is still writing.

Joseph Hansen wrote his first Dave Brandstetter novel 'Fadeout' in 1967. He wanted to write "a good whodunit", but he also "wanted to right some wrongs". He followed with eleven subsequent wrong-righting Brandstetter books; the last 'A Country of Old Men' published in 1991. While Brandstetter is not a card-carrying detective, we'll give him his bone fides. He's an insurance investigator in LA, ferreting out scoundrels or scammers who are bilking his insurance company for mega bucks, which back then was a bad thing, or who are killing people, which is still a bad thing. He's middle-aged at introduction, none too swift-of-foot or fierce-of-fist, but he makes his way quite ably by being smart and shrewd. And he's also gay, matter-of-factly, oh-by-the-way, but openly gay. In 1967!

Think back. In 1967, Lyndon Johnson is President; the Chicago Democratic convention and riots haven't happened yet; The Beatle's Sergeant Pepper is the top album (no CDs yet); Jackie O is alive and not yet married to Ari; 'Mission Impossible' is the number one-ranked TV drama (and The Monkees won the Emmy for best TV comedy - yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm a believer); Roe v Wade is 9 years off; and The Rolling Stone printed its first, yes very first, issue. AIDS is undiscovered, and Stonewall is just another bar in New York's West Village. Here's Hansen, writing a novel about a middle-aged gay insurance investigator with nary a wisecrack or serial killer, and getting it published! Well, getting it published three years later in 1970, by Harper and Row. Viewed from 2003, that's all pretty tame stuff. But in 1967, even 1970, it was neither tame nor stuffy.

Joseph Hansen, author of the Dave Brandsetter novels.
Hansen was a surprising low-key writer to be breaking such new ground. (Not to imply that he's no longer around. He's alive, just not writing.) He blended setting, plot and characters in stories that were timely and perceptive, but sensible and realistic, suspenseful, but above all, quite calm. Unwilling to sensationalize his character, and eschewing "action-packed" in favor of modest violence and taut tension, he created Brandstetter as a tenacious semi-plodder with brains not brawn, so unassuming as to be wholly believable and wholly inoffensive. Just a regular gay-guy-next-door. Nothing lurid, nothing risqué, nothing scary to the 70's reader. Nothing even particularly genre shattering, unless you believe, as many did then, that a gay detective is, by definition, genre shattering.

Hansen was completely up-front and unapologetic about his character's sexuality. Brandstetter's serial relationships with men, from hunky young things to older, wiser soul mates, are openly and unabashedly described in each of his novels, with honesty and tenderness at times, with exasperation and despair at others.

Hansen reflects the gay world.
Hansen's books reflect the gay world, and many of his plots involve gay characters, but he treats the entire gay theme routinely. By so doing, he delivers the message that homosexuals are quite ordinary, basically no different from anyone else, a message none too extraordinary now, but at that time, not at all common. Homosexuals in mysteries, if they appeared at all, were vilified scum. His books often feature parallel stories, one a Chandleresque story of crime and the other a story of gay relationships and sexuality that turned the clichés of the time upside down. His writing is elegantly styled, witty and descriptive, and his dialogue rings true. He is, looking back, a great chronicler of the LA of the late 60's and 70's, describing in readable detail its houses, cars, food and fashion, bars and nightlife. Of course, those descriptions now would send the 'Queer Eye' Fab Five to their cell phones, frantically dialing 911-Pottery Barn. Oops. Pottery Barn hasn't been invented yet, nor have cell phones, and Tommy Hilfiger is still in his nappies. It's a lava lamp and Mary Quant world, reflected in the cover images of his original first editions, displayed in their full-size glory in this gallery.

The smoking gun is ever-present in mystery fiction.
Hansen's later books tackle more socially and politically conscious themes, pornography in 'Skinflick', the AIDs epidemic in 'Early Graves', published in 1987, and the Vietnamese sub-culture in 'Obedience'. He pulled Brandstetter from retirement in the disappointing finale, 'A Country of Old Men" in 1991. He probably shouldn't have.

Hansen, while not widely read and certainly not widely promoted, developed a loyal following among both straights and gays. Did the Brandstetter series open publisher's doors to gay mystery novelists? If at all, certainly not wide, and certainly not with welcome. Does the Brandstetter series rank with the best mystery novels of the time? Although not unnoticed in his time, and not unheralded, probably not. Hansen presented a homosexual as the protagonist, not the sleazy villain, in solid, well written mysteries. Groundbreaking, but not earth shattering. Did Hansen succeed in his mission to "write good whodunits and right wrongs"? Absolutely, with honesty and old-fashioned good storytelling and without stridency. And some thirty years later, he's left us with over a dozen novels, and a number of Brandstetter short stories, well worth reading, or re-reading.

Michael Nava, author of the Henry Rios Novels.
While there's some chronological overlap between Hansen's last Brandstetter and Michael Nava's first Henry Rios, there is a vast gap in political and social climate. Michael Nava published his first series-novel featuring Henry Rios, a gay, Latino, Stanford educated attorney in 1986. Take Hansen and turn the dial up a few notches on the intensity scale, and you've got Nava. His setting is the LA of the 80's and 90's, with race riots, police corruption, unrest, and distrust. Toss in Rios' strong Latino ethnicity
and you have a seven book series that was both original and timely.

Since Rios is a lawyer, the whodunit stories are structured in the Earl Stanley Gardner attorney-uncovers-true-circumstances-to-save-client mode. (Sorry for all those hyphens.) Unlike Gardner's Perry Mason, who seemed to sit around while others did the dirty work (off camera), Harry does his own dirty work, and often pays the physical and emotional price. Like later Hansen books, Nava's novels tackle contemporary themes; political corruption between the haves and have-nots in the Mexican-American community in 'The Hidden Law'; the secret life of a closeted gay Supreme Court Justice in 'The Death of Friends'; and the compelling and powerful finale in 'Rag and Bone', about abused parents and their equally abused children. Unlike Hansen, Nava's stories most often focus on Latinos wronged, not gays wronged. But like Hansen, he penetrates not the underworld, but the ignored world of mostly ordinary people living mostly ordinary lives who face peril, both physical and psychological, by virtue of simple circumstance.

Michael Nava uncovers the Hidden Law.
Nava's novels, like Hansen's thread dual stories. Nava's novels are as much about Harry Rios, the person, as Harry Rio the "detective". He writes compassionately and sensitively about Harry's strained relations with his family, about his friends, straight and gay, and about his series of lovers. These are emotionally compelling stories, heart rending, and searing, simple and right-on real. The whodunits are well crafted and suspenseful, but Harry's personal connections are poignant and elevate the series beyond the constructs of the basic mystery genre. The action uber alles set will find little to like here; physical violence and sleaze are present, but controlled, and the narratives turn on the more troubling social and psychological violence done to one person by another.

Nava grew tired of his character well before his readers did. Openly gay Henry was openly retired with 'Rag and Bone' in 2001, the most personal and complex novel in the series. Henry retired with grace and dignity, leaving more than a few readers feeling like they'd lost a good friend. For authors looking for ways to end a long-running series that's lost its luster, (without killing off the protagonist) look to Nava, who did it supremely well. Of course, finding Nava may be a bit of a challenge...he retired himself along with Rios and has disappeared from the literary sub-culture.

Confessional personal stories and ancillary social agendas can easily derail a good mystery - and the more intimate, emotional or strident they are, the greater the danger. Neither Hansen nor Nava falls prey. With skill, sensitivity and with their queer eyes finely purposed, they keep their stories on track and thread the personal and social components so cleanly with the plot that they become inseparable. Readers are rewarded with two series that are compassionate and tough, innovative and satisfying, and, of course, gay. All without Gucci!

They did without.