How Town - Michael Nava

Ladymol's Review

Has anyone else noticed how irritating it is that book review sites don’t give lists of series in order? I’ve slapped myself on the wrist, and now here is the list of all the Michael Nava Henry Rios novels.

The Little Death


How Town

The Hidden Law

The Death of Friends

The Burning Plain

Rag and Bone

How Town, therefore, is the third in the series begun so well with The Little Death. Regular readers of these reviews will know I wasn’t so keen on Goldenboy. I think, on reflection, that I was expecting the series to go one way, and it didn’t – it went another. I’ve sort of caught up with it now in How Town, a book I’ve been reading for two days and didn’t want to put down. This isn’t a gay series, per se (although Henry is gay and many of his cases revolve around gay issues). The plots are intense and deal with painfully difficult issues, which really stretch moral boundaries. The gay elements are incidental although exquisitely handled.

This book has unsettled me, which is good. I read to be entertained, of course, but I want to be disturbed and challenged as well. Any book with paedophilia as its main theme is going to do that.  Henry is asked to defend a known paedophile, accused of murdering a man he was buying a child from. Gay equates to child molester in many people’s minds, and Henry is well aware he’s going to face prejudice being “that well know faggot lawyer”. That he abhors the man and what he stands for only makes him more determined to put his personal feelings to one side in order to practice law.  The detective work, the resolution of the case and the writing are all superb. There are no easy answers in this case. The guilty are innocents and the innocent mired by perversion.

Henry’s hold on his emotions is as fragile as the life he has with Josh, his HIV+ lover, who secretly checks himself for lesions everyday after Henry has left for work. Josh is going to break Henry’s heart one day soon, and the darkness encroaching on their lives is mirrored in the darkness of the case.

The books don’t leave you feeling upbeat, but they stay in the mind. Highly recommended.

Cerisaye's Review

The third Henry Rios mystery novel takes Henry back to his home town Los Robles in central California, to confront ghosts from his past: boyhood friends, including his first (unrequited) love, his all-but-estranged sister, Elena, and their dead parents.  Alcoholic Henry is now sober, though speaks of a serious lapse a few months earlier sparked by a fight with young lover Josh, introduced in the series opener, who is living with AIDS.

The ongoing relationship between Henry and Josh is for me the best thing about the Rios mysteries, therefore I was a little disappointed that Josh makes only occasional appearances through the story- not so much a criticism as compliment to Nava’s creation of a believable and compelling romance.  Which leads to another quibble, the fade-to-black nature of intimate scenes, though I accept not all readers want details.  However I should warn you the focus of the novel is a case involving paedophilia, and there are scenes that are disturbing.

Paul Windsor is younger brother of Mark, the object of Henry’s adolescent longing.  Henry receives a phone call from the sister he hasn’t seen in years, asking if he’ll defend Paul as a favour to her former best friend, his wife Sara.  Henry isn’t too happy because Paul is a paedophile, charged with murdering a known child pornographer.  Especially when he discovers Paul escaped prosecution for having sex with an under-age girl, Ruth Soto, daughter of a family servant, a few years earlier only because she refused to testify against him.  Henry is only too aware homophobic prejudice equates all gay men with sexual predators like Windsor- who, like most paedophiles, is straight.  His distaste at defending Paul Windsor, who thinks Henry should understand him simply because he is gay, is overcome by his sense of justice when it becomes evident Paul is the victim of officially sanctioned vengeance in the small town where brother Mark’s property redevelopment activities are very unpopular, and there is lingering anger that Paul goes unpunished for abusing Ruth.  Paul’s paedophilia should not deny him a fair trial and it looks like he won’t get with police and legal authorities colluding against him, unless Henry can prove his client’s innocence. 

It’s a sign of our times that it seems incredible when Mark Windsor asks Henry “What’s a pedophile?”  That most abusers were themselves abused is widely understood now, though the story uses this fact in a way I did not expect, which makes it particularly shocking.  Parents abuse children in other ways.  Vulnerable children are damaged by adults who should love & protect them; they blame themselves and retreat into isolation and self-hate.  This novel features several tormented adults who survived a form of childhood torture one likens to a concentration camp.  How do you have a happy life after that?  Through Henry, Nava makes us feel compassion for Paul Windsor without condoning paedophilia.

The novel was written in 1990.  That means Josh’s disease probably will kill him.  The tension that causes between Henry & Josh is heartbreaking.  Henry has never loved anyone before like he does Josh, and the story explains why.  He’s a complex character I am growing fonder of with each book in this series.  Finding Josh really is the best thing that’s happened to him, though my stomach lurches just thinking what it’d do to Henry to lose Josh.  There’s a beautiful but poignant moment after they attend a straight couple’s wedding when Josh tells Henry he wants to marry him- this is 17 years ago when the idea must’ve been pretty amazing.  I hope Henry builds bridges with his sister Elena, who is also gay.  I can’t wait to read more from Nava: this is crime fiction at its best.