"I stood in the sally port while the steel
door rolled back with a clang and then
I stepped through into the jail."
The Little Death
by Michael Nava
Michael Nava was not the first to create a detective series with a gay protagonist, but he was the first one I read, back in the 1980's when the Henry Rios novels debuted. Since a new edition of all seven novels came out this year, and since I enjoyed reading all ten of the Martin Beck series last year, I decided to give Micael Nava another go, see how well they hold up, maybe collect all seven, too.
I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed the first one, The Little Death, and that it holds up very well.
When we first meet Henry Rios, he is working for his final client with the Public Defender's Office, where he recently lost a big case and was transferred to a smaller branch office as a result. His boss thinks he just needs to take some time away, but Henry wants to look for other work. When an old friend turns up in need of protection, Henry finds himself involved in solving a murderous plot to keep his friend from coming into a sustantial inheritance. By the end of the book, it's clear to the reader if not quite clear to Henry, that he will soon be a private detective of the old school kind.
This is a left-leaning detective story. While not overtly about gay rights, The Little Death is told from the perspective of those on the ground looking up. Our detective is an outsider--because he is gay in a straight dominated world, because he is Latino in a world run by whites, becuase he works for the defense when his classmates became corporate lawyers. His first 'client' is the son of a powerful, wealthy family, old money in California where there is not a lot of old money, but his client is the blacksheep, a drug addict, unsuccessful at everything he ever attempted, and gay, too. His eventual murder will lead Henry to continue his investigation into the highest levels of the Bay Area's upper crust, without payment, just the way an old-school detective works.
No one ever seemed to get around to paying Phillip Marlow or Sam Spade, did they?
While The Little Death still works perfectly well as a detective novel some thirty plus years after its first publication, it's also a window into its time. I'm not sure how clear of a window it is, though. It struck me as set in the present. (It was first published in 1986.) The descriptions of San Francisco and the surrounding area, much of the book takes place on the Peninsula south of the city, are all spot-on. While Mr. Nava changes the names of some of the places he describes, I still felt like he was taking me on a tour of the city since I could recall so many of the places he 'named' in The Little Death. Mr. Nava does this at least as well as Armistead Maupin does in his Tales of the City series. It wasn't just the era's geography that Mr. Nava got right either. The way people lived, the things they did, the opinions they held and the actions they took all rang true to my memories of living in San Francsico in the 1980's.
But it seemed very strange to find no mention of AIDS. When did we become overwhelmed with AIDS in San Francisco? 1985 maybe? The disease was certainly around before that, but at some point in the 1980's every aspect, every organization, every entertainment, every interaction, was tinged by it. You couldn't go anywhere in the city without running into an information table or a fundraiser or at least a poster advertising safe sex. I was once late to a party because my bus was completly blocked by an ACT-UP demonstration. By the beginning of the 90's every time you ran into someone on the street, which happens all the time in San Francisco, there was a slight sense of dread as soon as the conversation turned to how is so-and-so these days...
So I was surprised to find no mention of AIDS in The Little Death. There's no clear date stated in the novel, and I'm sure it was written and sent off to the publishers well before 1986. You could read The Little Death thinking the book took place in the late 1970's, and I didn't find mention of any current event that would clearly establish an exact date for the novel's setting. Were we all that unaware of the crisis we were already living in? Was I?
I intend to read more of the Henry Rios series this summer; I've already got the next two in the series on my TBR shelf. I imagine AIDS will soon play a big role in the story.