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The Hammett and Chandler of Gay Detective Fiction
Image courtesy of the author.

The Hammett and Chandler of Gay Detective Fiction

How the books of George Baxt and Joseph Hansen changed the genre.

· 16 min read

The Baby boomers often get the credit (or the blame) for having revolutionized popular music, popular cinema, and popular fiction, dragging them out of the doldrums of the 1950s and rejuvenating them with infusions of sex, drugs, profanity, violence, and rock and roll. They also began to explore the lives of certain people—gays, lesbians, racial minorities, drug abusers, etc.—who were largely ignored by the pop culture of previous generations. This, of course, isn’t true, and it gives the boomers too much credit. The boomers benefitted from this revolution but they didn’t start the fire, as baby-boomer Billy Joel famously acknowledged. Many of the key players in the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and beyond were born in the 1920s and 1930s: Kurt Vonnegut, Timothy Leary, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Philip K. Dick, Ken Kesey, Elvis Presley, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, and so forth.

I have previously celebrated the contributions that Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset (1922–2012) made to literature in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s by fighting censorship laws that had previously made it illegal to sell books such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Earlier this year, I commemorated the 100th birthday of John Mortimer, another child of the 1920s who did far more than most boomers to help liberalize the popular culture of the English-speaking world. And now, the summer of 2023 brings us two more important centenaries to celebrate.

George Baxt, born June 11th, 1923, and Joseph Hansen, born July 19th, 1923, have been called the Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler of gay American detective fiction—each created a series of mystery novels featuring a gay protagonist long before doing so became commonplace. The two men were born about a month apart and died about a year apart (Baxt in 2003; Hansen in 2004). Baxt introduced his gay African-American NYPD detective, Pharoah Love, in a novel called A Queer Kind of Death, which was published in 1966 by Simon and Schuster. Hansen introduced Dave Brandstetter, a gay investigator for Medallion Insurance Company, in the 1970 novel Fadeout, published by Harper and Row. But the novels and their detective protagonists could hardly be more different.

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