Tuesday, November 12, 2019

CHOP IT UP: The Little Death by Michael Nava (Henry Dios Mystery #1)

Published in 1986, The Little Death is the first book in Michael Nava’s Henry Rio legal mystery series. Henry Rios is a gay, Latino public defender based out of San Jose. At the opening of The Little Death he acquires a case involving of a young socialite named Hugh Paris. Hugh has found himself arrested for being under the influenced of PCP as well as in possession of it. Which turned into an arrest and battery of an officer situation for him. During Rio’s prodding toward building Hugh's case, the two become lovers. Until Huge turns up dead underneath a bridge.
A budding companionship soured by death; with a few bizarre family-related clues in hand, Rio begins to question Hugh's death. And it's here where Rio unravels dark, generation-long secrets surrounding Hugh's family. These secrets involve the wealth and control behind the patriarchal governing of the Paris family. With, of course, many resulting family murders to unbury.

The character of Henry Rios is a direct reflection of the author, Michael Nava, himself. Both identify as gay. Both are Latino. And both are attorneys. All three landed me this book into my "trust" box. I knew the author was going to give it to me straight (no pun intended) from all three angles. Yet, the glowing reason I wanted to read this book was because of the gay lead element in a mystery series.

Now I had apprehensions; it frustrates me when gay characters become caricatures and stereotypes. But worse yet, when an author insist on entertaining common illusions that translates into the mythos ("let's check all the boxes") of the gay man/woman experience. Many of which makes for a dark and depressing read. This wasn't the case with The Little Death, as I felt like Henry Rios was real–in a sense. Or, at least, he came drawn further outside of the gay character mythos. And while loneliness and sadness were present, his attitude wasn’t begrudging over his sexuality. Such as life, it was a part of him only. Not the totality of his individuality and makeup. The Little Death doesn’t take the traditional approach to portraying gay characters and conflict. It wasn’t the pitiful gay character story.

Instead it was a real–even what I saw as pragmatic–portrayal. Now I won't say it was 100%, but Nava enthused my trust in his work for the following books in this series. I only wished he would have went further into Rio's backstory as a Latino kid motivated to become a defense attorney. Speaking of backstory, that whole "gay and isolated from family" thing was there. Crossing fingers Nava keeps Rios grounded by diving into that area later into the series. I would prefer that as opposed to the "rotating of bed partners to find love" branch of mythos. Or, well, trope.

With that out of the way. Let’s get into the mystery itself. I can keep this simple; while intriguing and layered, I found the mystery a bit too convoluted and "try hard". And I say that while looking into the characters/suspects built into Hugh’s family. Nava throws a lot at us, from both the current as well as the past players in Rios's dead lover's life. So many moving parts abound as we undress many of the various titles, secrets, deaths, and intentions of this tribe of corrupt suspects. It got a bit too-jagged-to-climb for a moment. Yet, to provide a little help, a family tree page helps guide things along. I had to do some mental backtracking to keep up with all those moving characters/parts/backstory/history. Still, despite all that, I loved the way Nava drew his suspects. They were cold. They were calculating. And they were reminiscent of Max Shreck before he pushed Selina Kyle out of a window to her "death" (see Batman Return for those references).

Anyway, I enjoyed the book and am happy I had the forethought to order the second one, Goldenboy, for the near future.

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