Michael Nava’s The Little Death

by Sunita

I decided I really needed a reading change of pace, and I wanted something that I knew would be good. Michael Nava’s mystery series featuring California lawyer Henry Rios had been on my wish list for a long time, and the books finally showed up in ebook format this year. I climbed into bed with the dogs (TheH is away), downloaded the sample and read it, immediately bought the book, and made myself put it down a third of the way through. I finished it the next day at the first chance I had.

The Little Death introduces the reader to Henry Rios, a 33-year-old Linden Law (read: Stanford Law) grad who is working as a public defender. He’s assigned to the PD’s office in Palo Alto, which sounds like it would be interesting, right? Not in the 1980s, the era in which this book is set. Rios has been exiled to the Palo Alto branch from the central San Jose office because of fallout from a high-profile case. Palo Alto is sleepy, suburban, and generally uninteresting, and Rios has been demoted from felony trials to arraignment court.

But his boring job suddenly perks up when he represents Hugh Paris, distaff member of the wealthy and powerful family that established Linden University in Palo Alto and that still wields an enormous amount of influence in the region and the state. Paris is a drug addict who was arrested for possession and resisting arrest, but he’s also gorgeous, charismatic, and immensely appealing. He’s quickly bailed out by a “John Smith” and Rios thinks that’s the end of it, but Paris shows up on his doorstep asking for help. Rios gives him that and a bit more, and they begin a tentative affair. He knows this can’t end well, but he doesn’t realize how quickly and how badly it will end until Paris is discovered face down in a creek, apparently having committed suicide.

The relationship ends, and the investigation begins. Rios is convinced it wasn’t suicide because Paris suspected that someone was out to get him. As Rios slowly starts to unravel Paris’s history and the circumstances surrounding his death, the circle of people involved and at risk widens.

When I read a mystery there are three aspects that matter to me: the narrator, the context, and the crime puzzle. Nava has a distinctive voice and he endows Rios with one too. The entire story is filtered through his perspective, and that was fine with me. He calls himself an old soul, and there is an aloneness that suffuses him. Rios graduated Linden/Stanford at a time when the college and the professional schools were still full of privileged white males from California, many of whom got in because their fathers were alumni. And he’s openly gay. But it seems likely that his individual psychology sets him apart more than his sexual orientation does. He’s depressed and he’s frustrated with his job, so he quits. But then he sets himself up in private practice, defending exactly the same people in exactly the same place, from a small office across the street. He thinks he was in love with Paris, but it’s hard to see how anything could have worked out.

In different hands a reader could tire of Rios quickly, but I never did. This is in part because he is smart and thoughtful, and while he has very few friends, he treats the ones he has with affection and consideration. He’s not self-pitying, either. He’s matter-of-fact about his shortcomings and while he’s clearly depressed, he gets on with his life. He’s a bit of a pessimist and a fatalist, but he’s interesting.

The context and setting are as well done as in anything I’ve read in a long time. This is an atmospheric novel and Nava’s writing envelops the reader in the feel of San Francisco and the Peninsula in the mid-1980s, back when the main reasons to go to downtown Palo Alto were the North Face store and the Good Earth restaurant, and the cyclery sold bikes you and I could afford. Nava can paint a picture almost effortlessly:

At the end of the day I drove to San Francisco on highway 280, the serpentine road that wound through the foothills behind the posh peninsula suburbs and within view of the hidden houses of the rich. The twisted eucalyptus trees stood high and elegantly on those hills and the air was moist with the fragrance of their leaves. Deer grazed those hills and now and then a jeep went flying along the dirt roads with no apparent destination. A line of horses appeared on the horizon and then disappeared behind a clump of oak.

I was passing through some of the wealthiest communities in the country, and the only sign of money was its absence. The developer’s hand was stayed from these hills and woods to perpetuate a view of California as it had existed a hundred years earlier. Even the Southern Pacific commuter train, whose whistle I heard in the distance, was a subsidized prop, reminding listeners of the pristine age before Henry Ford gave wheels to the masses.

And he’s just as good with people:

His dark hair was cut short and he wore a carefully clipped moustache. He was good-looking in an anonymous sort of way. A Castro clone.

This is a first novel and sometimes it shows. Early in the book, Rios looks at himself in the mirror and describes himself, which will make the author-readers groan, and there’s a lot of exposition. It’s not “telling” exactly, but because he spends a lot of time alone and thinking, there are long stretches with no dialogue. But the characters are all individuals. The two women in the book couldn’t be more different from each other, and while Hugh Paris’s mother starts out feeling like a stereotype, she ends the book as a unique person. Not a likeable one, but real.

Nava knows the difference between the rich of the Peninsula, like the Linden family, and the San Francisco rich, too:

He was one of those San Francisco aristocrats who, for all their culture and worldliness, never move a psychological inch from the tops of their hills. Among those families that gave the city its reputation for insularity, “provincial” was a compliment.

Rios is a long way from that world in class terms, but being gay bridges the gap. Despite San Francisco’s position as a gay Mecca, scions of San Francisco families had a hard time coming out (imagine being openly gay at the Bohemian Grove), and they bore the weight of generational expectations. Nava contrasts Hugh Paris, who breaks away but ultimately fails to build a life, with Grant Hancock, who has succeeded in his career and is a credit to his family, but who stays in the closet and bears all the burdens of that decision. Rios is attracted to Grant, and there is a hint of something more lasting when they get together, but I don’t think investing in them is a good long-term strategy.

The contrast between Paris and Hancock is a little too neat, but as I said, this is a debut. Similarly, the mystery is not hugely original, but it’s interesting and engaging. Rios gets himself into all kinds of trouble with everyone from rich and powerful family members to thugs by insisting on treating Paris’s suicide as a murder, with the somewhat unexpected assistance of the local detectives. I appreciated that the police weren’t treated as axiomatically anti-gay, and I especially liked Rios’s relationship with the woman detective, Terry Ormes. In this era she’s as much out of place as Rios is in some ways: he by virtue of his orientation, she by virtue of her gender. They bond, but as more as fellow travelers than friends. Again, I’d like to see more of her, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

One of my favorite, and I think criminally underrated, m/m writers, AM Riley, wrote a wonderful Goodreads review of this book in which she observed that “after all I’ve read in the past two decades, Henry Rios seems a tad prim.” I know what she means. There’s very little sex in this book, and no explicit sex at all. But in another way Rios is the opposite of prim: he’s comfortable in his own skin, and he’s accepting of other people as they are, rather than pushing them to be something in particular. He’s an emotionally reserved person. I can relate to that. Indeed, speaking only for myself, I wish we saw more of that as a normal human trait in m/m romance.

This is not a review (I do those at DA), so there’s no grade. This is more of a long thank-you letter to an author. Many readers, across all genres, seek out and most enjoy books that enthrall them, that engage their emotions completely. Other readers like books that engage their emotions and their intellect in more or less equal proportions. I like books where I feel as if I’m entering into a conversation, the kind where you could keep on talking all night. But then the story ends, which is the equivalent of having the bartender tells you it’s Last Call, and you have to pack up and hope you’ll get (conversationally!) lucky again another night. So I’m moving on to the next installment, Golden Boy. It’s supposed to be even better.

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