Title: Death Claims
Author: Joseph Hansen
Cover Photo: Digital Vision/Veer
Cover Design: Kristyn Kalnes
Publisher URL: Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
Amazon Buy Link: Death Claims
Genre: Mid-Century Mystery
Length: Novel (166 print pages)
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Tj
Summary Review: A wonderfully written second installment of Joseph Hansen’s highly revered Dave Brandstetter mystery series (now available in e-book). This is not truly an M/M romance, although the main character is gay and there is some exploration of his fairly new relationship from the first book and more generally, of being gay in the 1970’s.
The Blurb: Death Claims is the second of Joseph Hansen’s acclaimed mysteries featuring ruggedly masculine Dave Brandstetter, a gay insurance investigator. When John Oats’s body is found washed up on a beach, his young lover April Stannard is sure it was no accident. Brandstetter agrees: Oats’s college-age son, the beneficiary of the life insurance policy, has gone missing.
The Review: You never know what treasures you’ll find while clearing out clutter. I’ve been aware of Joseph Hansen’s fine writing for a number of years, but unfortunately after reading Fadeout (which Sirius reviewed here), the first book in his Dave Brandstetter mysteries, I lost track of the series and never continued. I recently decided to donate quite a few of my old paperbacks to the local GLBT center which maintains a lending library. While sorting through what was a surprising number of books, I came across the first 3 books in this series and decided it was time to continue reading.
As I said in the summary, this is not an M/M romance, although there is a gay relationship at it’s core. The book is more a straight forward mystery that happens to have a gay insurance claims investigator as its main character. He’s in a relationship at the start of the book – carried forward from book one, and his struggles with maintaining it are sprinkled throughout, although the main thrust is the investigation and Dave’s character growth.
There are underlying themes of loss and need and addiction – not only physical addiction – there is that, but emotional addiction – one that arises from loving and depending on another person. And when that person is no longer there or you simply could never have had them, the need doesn’t just go away. And how each character deals with that loss, that aching need is what ties the pieces of the story together, elevating it from merely a series of interviews in which Dave has to suss out the truth, to a fascinating character study of human nature.
During his investigation, Dave sees many parallels to his own life, and witnessing what people are capable of doing for love (good and bad) brings Dave’s own relationships (past and present) into sharper focus for him. Where he begins the book feeling lost and unsure of what to do, by the end he comes to terms with his own emotional addiction and seems ready to move forward. Tying the characters together with a common theme and showing how very differently each character copes is inspired.
What earned these books their highly lauded place in history was surely in part due to the beautiful prose used throughout. Mr. Hansen paints vivid pictures with his words that bring not only the characters, but the landscape to life. This is from the opening scene:
“Arena Blanca was right. The sand that bracketed the little bay was so white it hurt the eyes. A scatter of old frame houses edged the sand, narrow, high-shouldered, flat roofed. It didn’t help that they were gay with new paint – yellow, blue, lavender. They looked bleak in the winter sun… The bleakness was in him. After only three months he and Doug were coming apart.” (I love how Mr. Hansen ties the bleak landscape to Dave’s feelings.)
Or later when Dave realizes that he should’ve called Doug to say that he’d be home late. (This is pre cell/mobile phone days):
“Was there a booth? It waited in a corner like a child left over from a long-ago twilight game of hide-and-seek. It was an old wooden booth with wired glass and overgrown with ivy.” (How’s that for imagery.)
And when describing making orange juice from frozen concentrate in a blender (yes, we did that in the 1970’s):
“Inside the jar, chaos began, like the explosion of a miniature sun.”
That image will stick with me every time I use my blender. Lastly, near the end of the story we come full circle:
“Arena Blanca still looked bleak. The cheery paint on the old houses, the glitter of the blue bay, the keen whiteness of the sand were lonely. The trim boats at the jetties waited like blind classroom kids, arms raised, with no teacher to turn them loose. Gulls, slicing the sunlight, were all that seemed alive.”
If that lovely prose doesn’t entice you, the mystery was well written and kept me reading to see what had really happened to John Oats and equally where Dave would be when all was said and done. I highly recommend Death Claims.