Little Death - Michael Nava
This is the first of Michael Navaís Henry Rios mystery stories. I shall certainly be reading the others. In lots of ways, Henry reminded me of Dave Brandstetter in that heís slightly remote, to the extent that he comes over as a little aloof. At one point a lover asks him if they are going to be okay and Henry replies that he doesnít have anything left inside to make that kind of decision. Vulnerable, burnt-out in his job as a public defender, Henry meets the enigmatic Hugh Paris. Hugh is wealthy but alone and hiding from someone whom he claims is trying to kill him. Unable to resist Hughís brooding beauty, Henry lets himself fall deeply in love. He becomes drawn into a story of twisted revenge and family fealty that almost destroys him.
The whole storyline is driven by the fact that Henry Rios is gay, but this isnít a gay novel per se. The sex is very much of the ďthe next morning I watched Hugh on the pillow beside meĒ kind and in that itís pretty immaterial whether itís gay or het. Where I think the gay element makes more impact is in the isolation and vulnerability of the gay men portrayed. Henry seems unable to sustain relationships and thinks his straight friends have more of a hang-up about his sexuality than they probably do. Another, Hugh, is the product of abuse, and his mother doesnít believe homosexuals can really feel love. The third, Grant, found his homosexuality, which heíd striven to hide from everyone, being used to blackmail his family. Being gay in Navaís story certainly doesnít bring any happiness.
Henry is an interesting, slightly closed off man coming to a crisis that Iíd very much like to see play out in the next novel. Recommended.
Having finished all the Brandstetter and Strachey novels, we needed a new mystery series to get our teeth into.† Navaís seven Henry Rios novels came highly recommended.† Having just finished this first one, I agree you will not be disappointed.† Thereís more going on than murder by numbers, as Navaís lawyer character finds his way into our affections.
At 33 Rios is younger than either Dave or Don when their respective series began.† He doesnít have a partner or lover, though heís close to old friend Aaron Gold from law school days, but, unlike Henry, Aaron is straight.† The setting is around San Francisco Bay in the early 1980ís.† Rios lacks Daveís support network, the family he made, but like Dave his work is his life.† Also like Dave, heís happy with his sexuality, openly and actively gay.
Rios is very good at his job as a criminal lawyer, but heís having something of an early midlife crisis.† Losing an important case had him transferred from the public defenderís San Jose to a branch office to recover from burnout.† Trouble is, itís not his work thatís the problem, but his personal life.† Or rather lack of.† Though frustrated by limited prospects, Henry isnít about to sell out and join a big corporate law firm.† His passion is pursuit of justice for those who canít buy their way out of trouble, and in that heís again very like Dave (something tells me I havenít quite let go of Brandstetter).
When Henry meets handsome dissolute Hugh Paris, arrested on minor drink & drugs related charges, the two make an immediate connection, though Rios canít do much for Hugh because he refuses to level with him.† Then two weeks later Paris turns up at Henryís house at 3:00 a.m. looking for refuge because he says someone is after him.† Hugh comes from a fabulously wealthy aristocratic California family, and his unscrupulous grandfather, Judge Robert Paris, wants rid of him to secure the family fortune.
Hugh wants Henryís help, but the lawyer doesnít know if heís telling the truth or if thereís anything to be done.† Yet something sparks between them that gives Henry hope.† Rios quits his job to set up his own practice and Hugh becomes his first case.
Itís a familiar tale of wealth and power, greed, corruption and abuse of privilege.† Though Rios is a lawyer he turns detective on a personal crusade, aided by a sympathetic young policewoman with a concern to do the right thing.† The judge is an evil man who obtained custody of young Hugh then abused the boy, instilling deep self-loathing that led a troubled youth to drug addiction.† Even so, Rios is sceptical that a close relative would plot murder in cold blood, not when there are easier ways to get the job done.†
Like Hansen, Nava isnít afraid to shake up his readers.† The mystery plot is intriguing enough, filled with twists and complicated legal stuff that lost me.† But, as with Dave & Don, itís the personal story of Rios that held my attention.†
First person narration makes it easier to get to know Henry, with moments that bring the character to life- as when he remembers his first sexual experience with its unexpected tenderness.† We learn quite a lot about Henryís student days, but almost nothing about his family, and though heís Mexican American it doesnít feature as an issue yet.† Nor can I recall much in the way of physical description, other than he works out and has a few wrinkles.
As a set-up for a series it works well, establishing Henry as a likeable, somewhat troubled man, looking for something though he doesnít know what, inclined to soul searching and relentless pursuit of justice.†† Like Strachey & Brandstetter, Rios isnít defined by his sexuality; itís just one part of him.† Given the time period obviously Henry will have to deal with AIDS.† I donít think itís a good sign the way he relies on alcohol either.† I look forward to accompanying Rios on his journey.