A Queer Eye on the Mean Streets
The Agony Column for
November 20, 2003
|Raymond Chandler defined the "mean streets".|
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
his bone fides. He's an insurance investigator in LA, ferreting
out scoundrels or scammers who are bilking his insurance company
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
ably by being smart and shrewd. And he's also gay, matter-of-factly,
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.
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.
The smoking gun is ever-present in mystery fiction.
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.
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 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.|