If this Corvette-cool, drumskin-taut policier leaves you marveling at its incorporation of a totally rugged, sexy, openly gay sleuth into a style and milieu that reads deliciously like Chandler, Hemingway, and Jacqueline Susann all in bed together, then get this: Hansen wrote it not at the turn of this century--which has gay characters popping up in books and movies and on TV in all sorts of stereotype-busting ways--but, remarkably, in the 70s! Indeed, it was the second in what became Hansen's series of Southern California-set whodunits featuring insurance-claims investigator Dave Brandstetter, who is not without his own lost loves and private demons--and yet never without his cigarette, glass of whiskey (neat, of course), and enough terse, manly stoicism to make Steve McQueen look like Richard Simmons. The Brandstetter series has acquired something of a cult following over the 30 years that Hansen developed it (Death Claims is the second title in its U.S. revival courtesy of Alyson Publications, although many more are currently in print by No Exit Press, available on Amazon's U.K. link) and this slim, no-slack volume, which followed up Fadeout, the series debut, makes it delightfully clear why. Everything you could want in a gay-inflected murder mystery set in golden-haired SoCal in the Nixon years is here: A middle-aged rare-books dealer whose doped-up body is found washed up on the coast, his shrewish ex-wife, his lovely young bibliophile girlfriend, and his angelically beautiful and adoring actor son. Don't forget the imperiously queeny head of the local repertory theater; the confirmed-bachelor superstar of a TV western and the blind, Bible-thumping mother who rules his life; a seedy young hospital orderly who smuggles morphine to addicted patients; and a couple of small-time academics obsessed with the lost notebooks of Thomas Wolfe.
Then there's Hansen's language, which falls brilliantly somewhere between homage to and spoof of his thriller-penning forebears, right from the first line--"Arena Blanca was right. The sand that bracketed the little bay was so white it hurt the eyes...gulls sheared a sky cheerful as new denim"--to curt, epigrammatic lines--"The dead are terrible. They won't help you at all. No matter how you loved them"--that can only be said with a cigarette propped out of the corner of one's mouth. In fact, the only thing you could call even remotely stereotypically gay about Hansen's prose (or, indeed, Brandstetter's point-of-view) is its obsession with interior design--but even that remains true to genre ("a wastebasket was alone there like a dwarf prince in a dungeon--royal-purple plastic embossed with gold fleur-de-lis...").
True, none of the supporting characters is really developed beyond colorful stock, and not every gear of the story clicks into place with the elegant exactitude and ever-increasing tension and claustrophobia of the technically perfect mystery novel. But who cares? Dave Brandstetter is too cool to be passed up. He's got a steady enough hand to take a drink with even the most sinister of suspects, he hangs out and talks about relationships with his suave Lothario dad, and he can be sensitive and tender with his longtime lesbian friend Madge without lapsing into total schmaltz. Oh, and of course he's haunted by the boy that got away. --Timothy Murphy