Fadeout by Joseph Hansen
Originally published in 1970
Dave Brandstetter #1
Followed by Death Claims
Set in the mid-1960s, Fadeout centers on the disappearance of a southern California radio personality named Fox Olson. A failed writer, Olson finally found success as a beloved folksinger and wholesome country raconteur with a growing national audience. The community is therefore shocked when Olson’s car is found wrecked, having been driven off a bridge and swept away in a fast-moving arroyo on a rainy night. A life insurance claim is filed by Olson’s widow and the company holding the policy sends their best man to investigate. The problem is that Olson’s body was never found. Not in the car. Not further down the river. As Dave Brandstetter begins his investigation he quickly finds that none of it adds up.
Fadeout was something of a landmark title within the mystery genre. This hardboiled mystery was one of the first to feature a gay protagonist – the handsome insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter cut from the same sort of tough-guy mold as the detectives of Macdonald, Hammett, and Chandler. While there were previous works in the genre that featured gay leads, what helps set Hansen’s creation apart and give it that landmark status was that it spawned a series of serious, literary works which explored its protagonist’s character in depth. They would find critical and commercial success, eventually leading Hansen to get the lifetime achievement award from the Private Eye Writers of America.
The book begins with Dave Brandstetter arriving in the town of Pima, southern California to investigate a suspicious claim. Popular folksinger and radio personality Fox Olson’s car was found having been driven off a bridge but no body was found in the wreckage. His widow claims that this means his body was swept away in the heavy rain that night and swallowed into one of the storm drains. Brandstetter isn’t satisfied by that explanation and is determined to figure out what happened and whether Fox is really dead or if this is just some insurance scam.
Insurance investigations can be a really interesting starting point for a mystery as it is a setup that has the benefits of a professional investigation (both in the investigator’s personal motive for investigating and the resources and skills to make it effective) but avoids some of the procedures and legal obligations of a law enforcement investigation. That also means that characters have no clear obligation to talk to him and must be persuaded to speak out or answer questions, adding additional complications – particularly in the sort of case we see unfold in Fadeout.
Dave Brandstetter may be working for a company but he is often presented almost as a hardboiled private eye. Part of the reason for that is Hansen’s prose is lean and purposeful and though it is written in the third person, Dave’s world-weariness and cynicism is evident throughout. We see it in his sometimes quite direct interactions with the people involved in the case – particularly with the woman who thinks of herself as Fox’s widow – and also in his self-reliance given that he is working this case alone.
Perhaps the most distinctive quality though about the prose are the moments of melancholy and reflection spread throughout. Dave is still processing the death of his partner that happened mere weeks before the action here begins, perhaps contributing to that sense of numbness and cynicism present in his demeanor at points. It is a thoughtful depiction of grief, often at its most effective when it is encountered in unexpected places or moments and where we find parallels (and contrasts) with aspects of Dave’s investigation.
Often a detective’s personal backstory may be interesting but it can feel separate from the case being investigated. Here however Hansen develops some really rich and deep connections between Dave’s experiences and what he learns of in this case making that backstory and the details of the case being investigated feel equally important. It is that sense that the two stories are so tightly interwoven that I think really enhances the impact of some of those elements, making it feel truly cohesive.
At times that can work somewhat to the detriment of the book’s mystery elements, at least for the reader who wants to be surprised. Hansen sets up his themes so well that by the point at which we are getting to the reveal, the information learned feels inevitable rather than shocking. It is to the author’s credit though that even when sensing what is likely to come, the book is still able to generate tension and investment as we wonder how things will be resolved.
It helps that Hansen gives his book a strong sense of place and also the period in which he is writing. Though it is a comparatively short work (the Syndicate Books reprint is just 166 pages long), many of the book’s secondary characters feel vibrant and dimensional, making a far greater impact than you might expect in brief interactions. This is particularly true of our possible corpse Fox Olsen, who is shown to be a surprisingly rich and complex character even when we are only learning about him from third parties. As (possible) victims go, he is one of the most memorable I can recall encountering in mystery fiction and the more I learned about him, the more I wanted to discover the truth of what had happened.
That explanation of what had happened, while containing some elements which felt inevitable, was nonetheless a really interesting one that I felt pulled together the themes and ideas developed throughout the novel quite powerfully, landing a few emotional punches in the process. Reflecting back on the case with the knowledge of how it would conclude only made me more impressed with its construction and the way the story is developed, leaving me keen to go on and read more from this series.
The Verdict: This strong first outing for insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter boasts strong, well-developed characters and a compelling premise. I have no doubt I will check out the sequels.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Consider asking your local bookseller to order a copy (the book’s ISBN is 978-1681990460).
If you prefer to shop online however, you can find a copy of the handsome Syndicate Books reprint on Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.