Twenty years ago Joseph Hansen did something revolutionary.
He wrote a mystery whose protagonist was tough, smart and gay.
The book, called "Fadeout," featured an insurance investigator named David Brandstetter. Like Philip Marlowe and a dozen other modern American sleuths, Brandstetter was a decent, courageous man working the mean streets. But on good nights, when the gunplay was over, Brandstetter went home to another man.
Hansen recalls that he wrote the first Brandstetter book almost as a lark, aware that the genre he had chosen--the form that had given rise to Mike Hammer and so many other macho male cartoons--was "notoriously butch." Today, more and more gays and lesbians are appearing as the heroes and heroines of novels of mystery and suspense.
What started out as a novelty has become, if not commonplace, at least an accepted variation on a wildly popular theme. Indeed, when the 11th Brandstetter mystery, "The Boy Who Was Buried This Morning," is published next month, the jacket copy will not even mention that the book's durable hero is gay.
That omission is part of Hansen's message. "Homosexuals," the gay writer says, "are like everyone else except in one small particular."
Hansen will be part of a panel on mystery writing Saturday during a daylong conference on gay and lesbian literature at UCLA, sponsored by UCLA Extension. Appearing with him will be mystery writers Michael Nava, Vicki P. McConnell, Richard Stevenson, and Barbara Wilson. (For further information, call (213) 825-9415).
"Hansen is an absolutely towering name in the gay and lesbian novel," says Katherine V. Forrest, a lesbian novelist who helped organize the conference. "He was out there when nobody else was, and we're all standing on his shoulders."
Forrest, who liked Nancy Drew mysteries as a child because Drew was female but not namby-pamby, has written three mysteries featuring an Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective named Kate Delafield, a lesbian who is "very much closeted" as part of an 8,000-member force in which "nobody is out."
Hansen, a 66-year-old Westsider, accepts the responsibilities of literary paternity. "I don't mind being a father," he says. "I like it." He speaks fondly--and with considerable respect--of "the baby ducks" that "came out of the water and came running after me."
When Hansen began publishing mysteries in the 1960s, there were few gay models anywhere in American literature. Writers as talented and popular as Tennessee Williams veiled their observations and insights about the gay experience. Hansen remembers how moved he was by Christopher Isherwood's courage in publishing his candidly homosexual novel, "A Single Man," in 1964. As to mysteries, the only gay titles Hansen found were several books by George Baxt, notably "Swing Low, Sweet Harriet" and "A Queer Kind of Death," which featured a repellent protagonist named Pharoah Love.
"I wanted to write books that were honest about this subject and matter of fact about it," he says. He also wanted readers, and he figured that "there were a lot of readers who liked mysteries, including me." Although he wanted to write candidly about being gay, he didn't want to write about it per se. "I don't like books about The Subject," he explains.
Initially, the only presses interested in Hansen's efforts were "sleaze publishers," he says. His real breakthrough book, published in 1968 under the pseudonym James Colton, was a mystery he called "Pretty Boy Dead." The publisher called it "Known Homosexual."
"I didn't have my choice of titles in those days," he notes.
Hansen's work has shaped another generation. Moderating Saturday's panel will be Michael Nava, 35, who has written three mysteries featuring a gay, Latino attorney named Henry Rios.
Nava, whose new book is called "How Town," remembers homing in on "A Queer Kind of Death" on a library shelf. But it was Hansen, whom Nava read in college and law school, who became his role model. Nava was thrilled to discover "a writer who presents a gay protagonist who's neither a drag queen nor a promiscuous New Yorker."
Unlike earlier generations of gay writers, Nava never agonized over his hero's sexual orientation. "I'm gay," says Nava, a Sacramento native who lives in West Hollywood. "All a writer has is his experience, and that's part of my experience. That's why Henry is Latino, too, because that's also part of my experience."
"How Town," whose title is from a poem E.E. Cummings, is Nava's crossover book, his first published by a mainstream house--Harper & Row, where Nava shares an editor with mystery giant Tony Hillerman.
Like many other gay writers, Nava was initially encouraged by Alyson Press in Boston, one of the gay and lesbian presses that are another post-revolutionary phenomenon. Nava recalls that he got a $600 advance for his first book and $15,000 for "How Town." But the move to the big time means no more encouraging phone calls to and from his publisher ("How Town" is dedicated to his former publisher, Sasha Alyson).
"I don't have access to Rupert Murdoch," Nava says of the publishing magnate. One of Murdoch's firms owns Harper & Row.
Inevitably, the AIDS epidemic has had an impact on the work of gay writers. In "How Town" Henry's lover is coping with the strain of being HIV positive, which transforms Henry as well. Nava thinks life-affirming gay voices are especially important in these terrible times.
"It's very important that it be noted that we are here, and we are not all sick and dying of AIDS," he says. "We are here, and we will be here."