Roseville Beach Reading: Joseph Hansen's Skinflick

“Respectability.” Dave stepped into the cookhouse. “You remember respectability? No, you’re too young. Everybody lived by it once. It never meant much, it hardly means anything anymore. It didn’t bear any relation to reality. Today most people know that. But not everybody. Gerald Dawson found it out and it killed him. Now it’s going to destroy his wife and son.”

“Decency,” Amanda began.

“Not decency. Respectability…. What the neighbors think of you. Only there aren’t any neighbors anymore. And if they think, they don’t think about you, they think about themselves.”

This is a series about beach reads in the summer of 1979: pop fiction and pulp fiction that might show up on the shelves of Sandy Perez’s Paperback Exchange & Newsstand in the back of The Market in Roseville Beach. These aren’t formal reviews, just quick read-throughs with an eye to how ideas from the book could inform your Roseville Beach game.

As you might figure out from the sample above, Skinflick’s author, Joseph Hansen (despite many problems), is an undisputed master of hardboiled dialogue, and it fits his highly competent Los Angeles death claims insurance investigator, Dave Brandstetter. Dave is also gay, and at the start of the series, he’s just lost his long-term lover to cancer. Skinflick is the fifth Dave Brandstetter novel following Fadeout, Death Claims, Troublemaker, and The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of. In previous volumes, Dave had met, moved in with, and then developed an increasingly troubled relationship with his boyfriend Doug, and had met and become friends with his father’s most recent wife as they care for his ailing father. This novel takes him to the seedy intersection of porn and evangelical Christianity, with all the seedy results you might expect.

Different sources have given me different years for this novel’s release, and I’m unsure whether it actually showed up in stores and spinner racks in 1979 or 1980, much less whether it’d have made it to the Roseville Beach Paperback Exchange in time for the summer of 1979, and I’m letting myself cheat since this is probably the strongest Brandstetter book since the original.

Spoiler Warning: This series of posts are about books at least 40 years old, sometimes older, specifically looking at what kinds of game sessions they might inspire. That means there will often be spoilers. I won’t try to mark them individually: if you prefer to avoid spoilers, you’ll want to skip this post.

The Author

Joseph Hansen, who was gay, worked with his lesbian wife Jane Bancroft to found groundbreaking queer periodicals like ONE and Tangent in addition to writing both poetry and pulp and popular fiction. In addition to writing the David Brandstetter mysteries and other works under his own name, Hansen published gothic novels as Rose Brock and pulp fiction as James Colton.

The Book

Skinflick opens with Dave having lost his father (and the job at the life insurance company), broken up with Doug, and taken up the life of a private investigator specializing in death claims insurance cases. As is often the case, Dave thinks the police investigation into a death—in this case, a homicide—was sloppy and suspects the victim’s wife and 18-year-old son. The whole family are devout evangelical Christians, and the victim (who runs a film equipment rental) was part of a vigilante group that attacked porn studios and stores.

Like most of the Brandstetter books other than the first one, Fadeout, Skinflick is a short novel so the action quickly escalates out of Dave’s control. Hansen writes “detective stories” rather than traditional mysteries, so Dave frequently relies on instinct and information the reader doesn’t get access to and Hansen doesn’t use a closed circle of suspects or shy away from major twists in the narrative. In this case, the police have arrested a porn-store owner that the victim had previously harassed. It eventually turns out that while the victim, Gerald, had started dating a young porn star, originally introduced to him by his non-Christian business partner who was hoping to blackmail him. Gerald’s family found out and confronted him, but unknown to any of them, the young woman has her own past and an estranged husband who’s looking for her.

I’ll be honest, though, while I sometimes find Hansen’s plots convoluted, I don’t really read them for the A plot anyway. My favorite Hasend moments are the ones that interrupt the main plot: Dave’s dad’s widow, Amanda, and her having to adapt to living as the roommate of a gay private detective rather than the wife of an insurance executive; Dave’s old associate who’s divorced and drink; Dave’s ex-lover Doug coming by to console Dave on his father’s death, never reminding anyone (not even the reader), that a few novels back, when Doug was dealing with his mother’s dementia, Dave was too busy working on a case. These short encounters are more about Dave and less about the mystery, and they give the otherwise terse and violent narrative breathing room and showcase Hansen’s skill at writing both narration and dialogue.

There’s troubling content here, though: Devout Christian and anto-porn vigilante Gerald isn’t just secretly dating a porn star, he likes her because she looks under age, and he secretly collects porn magazines with underage women, and Hansen generally conflates sex work with drug abuse and child abuse, meaning that Dave’s laissez-faire attitude about L.A.’s porn industry quickly becomes a laissez-faire attitude toward abuse.

Roseville Beach & The Mystery

For obvious reasons, tabletop RPGs really like the closed circle of suspects approach to mysteries: you know who the suspects are pretty much from the beginning, and while there are twists and turns narrowing it down, you start the whole adventure with a good idea of the list you’re drawing from.

But Hansen is good at writing a different kind of mystery. Dave’s not a cop, consulting detective, or a PI (in the Hollywood sense). He’s primarily working for insurance companies, and he’s usually coming in after the cops think they’ve closed the case. Dave usually has a theory and sometimes even thinks he knows who the pool of suspects are. Hansen never lets him get comfortable, though: Dave’s frequently wrong about who did it, but he’s almost always right about who didn’t do it.

He’ll form theories and discard them when they fall apart (or when they never come together). He’s often less solving crimes than continually poking at cases everyone insists are already solved. In Skinflick, the real murderer isn’t even known to exist until 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through the book. That might sound unsatisfactory to some players, but what Dave is sure of is that the murder victim was loudly trashing porn stores and gay businesses while trying to help his girlfriend (who’s over 20 but looks under 18) break into the porn business and that the porn store owner who’s been charged with the crime definitely didn’t do it. He can’t figure out who did, though, so he keeps poking at the crime, testing out theory after theory until he figures it all out.

I don’t have a good solution for getting this hardboiled detective novel approach to mysteries into RPGs, but it points to what I’m finding frustrating about so many RPG mysteries and their seeming belief that the PCs role as protagonist means the PCs ultimately have to be right. Dave isn’t the protagonist because he immediately figures out what happened and is always right—he’s the protagonist because everyone else is wrong and he’s the only one willing to call them on it.

Dim All the Lights, includes more 1979 mysteries for Roseville Beach and can play on its own or serve as a supplement to Moonlight on Roseville Beach. It will include new scenarios from Richard Ruane and Sharang Biswas, new locations and settings from Ezakur and Richard, creatures and mystery starters from Noora Rose and Richard Ruane, and new fiction from Bendi Barrett and R.J. Ryan. Sign up to follow along!


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