GREAT CRIME NOVELS
Recommended by Cormac Millar
2. FADEOUT by Joseph Hansen (1970)
A series of crime novels featuring a constant protagonist tends to stand or fall on its overall impact. Individual books become less sharply defined, and may almost be seen as interchangeable. The Brandstetter novels are so good when taken together that chosing to highlight one on its own involves some degree of loss.
Joseph Hansen (1923-2004) was a writing instructor and crime novelist with an unusual slant on life. In real life Hansen was homosexual, married to a lesbian and with one transsexual child. In his Dave Brandstetter series, having a homosexual hero allows Hansen to probe, often with brilliant subtlety, the contrast between public appearance and private emotion, the gap between socially sanctioned desire and personal need, the virtues of companionship and loyalty, the demands of religious belief, the struggle to be virtuous, the trap of hypocrisy. His world is predicated on the assumption that what you see cannot always be what you get, and the semi-hidden world of gay identities (often cutting across race, class and belief) offers him the perfect vehicle for that perception. He does not go in for propaganda or facile condemnation. He creates credible female characters. His hero, millionaire insurance investogator Dave Brandsetter, is stylish, sensitive, aware and driven (usually in a Jaguar).
Fadeout, the first book in the series, is representative of his talents. It concerns a semi-creative man, country singer Fox Olsen, who realizes his lifetime ambitions before suddenly disappearing. Dave Brandstetter unravels the mystery by delving through layers of California society, layers of identity, layers of his own personal sorrow. The plot is complex and episodic, within a tightly-controlled wordcount. And the writing... well, one of the nice things about Joseph Hansen, as a writer, was that he knew how to write, placing his words with spare precision. Here's how Fadeout begins:
Fog shrouded the canyon, a box canyon above a California town called Pima. It rained. Not hard rain but steady and grey and dismal. Shaggy pines loomed through the mist like threats. Sycamores made white twisted gestures above the arroyo. Down the arroyo water poured, ugly, angry and deep. The road shouldered the arroyo. It was a bad road. The rains had chewed its edges. There were holes. Mud and rock half buried it in places. It was steep and winding and there were no guard rails.
He drove it with sweating hands. Why? His smile was sour. Why so careful? Wasn't death all he'd wanted for the past six weeks? His mouth tightened. That was finished. He'd made up his mind to live now. Hadn't he? Live and forget – at least until he could remember without pain. And that would happen someday. Sure it would. All the books said so. The sum of human wisdom. Meantime, he was working again.
And here was the bridge. It was wooden, maybe thirty feet in span, ten feet wide. Heavy beams, thick planks, big iron bolts. Simple and strong.The right kind of bridge for this place.
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