MICHAEL NAVA put his eighth detective novel about Henry Rios in 1986, a year that feels both distant and familiar. The then raging pandemic was AIDS – a virus more deadly than COVID-19, although a little harder to catch. What should have been a simple public health emergency has become a battleground in cultural wars, as AIDS was initially viewed as a “gay disease”.
As the Reagan administration hesitated, longtime enemies of gay liberation (Pat Buchanan comes to mind) rushed to regain the ground they lost in the 1970s, claiming that the disease no longer was nothing less than God’s punishment for degeneration. In 1986, even William F. Buckley Jr., that example of gentlemanly conservatism, spoke out in The New York Times that “anyone diagnosed with AIDS should be tattooed on the upper forearm, to protect ordinary syringe users, and on the buttocks, to avoid victimization of other homosexuals.”
Give up all hope, you who come in here.
Also in 1986, an initiative (actually Proposition 64, but called Prop 54 in Nava’s novel) appeared on the California ballot, calling for people living with HIV to be “subject to quarantine and health laws and regulations. ‘isolation’. Born of the widespread fear, if not mistaken, that AIDS could be spread by air or by simple touch, the measure triggered a corresponding panic among homosexuals. Wouldn’t it be just an excuse for people who didn’t like them anyway to throw them in concentration camps in the desert?
This is the atmosphere in which Henry Rios – like its creator, a gay Latino defense lawyer in Los Angeles – strives to represent an activist group called QUEER that opposes Prop 54. The group claims to be no -violent, but one of its members, Theo Latour, an HIV-positive drug addict and former porn star, is accused of bombing a large fundamentalist church, Ekklesia, killing its pastor, Daniel Herron, who publicly supported the initiative. To complicate matters, Rios, a recovering alcoholic who put his love life on hold while rebuilding his law firm, falls in love with a young man, Josh Mandel, who happens to be Theo’s roommate.
Plus, it turns out that Herron was not as conservative a Christian as the QUEER members might have thought. Nava first gives us the backstory: Herron was a former Haight-Ashbury hippie who had a faith of peace and love before marrying the daughter of the fire and brimstone founder of Ekklesia and, with apprehensions, got caught up in the inerrancy of scriptures such as Leviticus’ injunction that any man who “sleeps with another man” should be put to death.
In fact, Herron has an explosive secret even bigger than the bomb. He discovered that a hippie-era lover, a black woman from San Francisco, had a son by him. The boy, Wyatt, is HIV positive and already seriously ill. To Herron’s credit, love trumps doctrine, and he desperately tries to gain access to drugs that aren’t FDA approved but are available over the counter in Mexico. Without revealing his identity, he asks QUEER for help with drug trafficking and even consults with Rios about it.
After the bombing, it becomes evident that an old faction loyal to the founder of Ekklesia is not unhappy about getting rid of Herron. After his death, his warring widow, Jessica, finds herself a pawn in a power struggle within the church. And because homosexuals, like blacks, have long memories of official misconduct, Rios begins to suspect that an obscure counterterrorism unit from the Los Angeles Police Department has infiltrated QUEER and, to discredit the group and help the Prop campaign. 54, had an agent provocateur incites Theo to plant the bombs.
In 1986, the Rodney King riots were only six years old and Daryl Gates was still the leader of the LAPD, following two other right-wing icons: William Parker and Ed Davis. Nava retraces this story for readers who may have forgotten her. The LAPD did not hesitate to adopt J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI COINTELPRO tactics for local ends, using anti-communism as a justification for attacking dissident groups of all kinds.
The most remarkable thing about Henry Rios, compared to your typical literary crime solver, is that he’s a reasonable, decent guy – a true humanist. He believes in his fellow human beings despite many reasons not to. He lives in a society in which a significant minority, with varying degrees of seriousness, denies him the right to exist unless he denies his innate nature, and he works in a legal system that has always been biased against his species.
There is a revealing scene in which he and Josh, exploring what the two hope will turn out to be a long-term relationship, discuss how Spain expelled Josh’s Jewish ancestors while conquering Rios’ native ancestors in the Mexico. Josh notices:
“The story is just a long bloodbath, isn’t it, Henry?”
I breathed in the warm air, the smell of skin. “Well, there’s the official story, the one that’s written, which is mostly a story of cruelty and destruction, and then there’s the unwritten story, the secret story of kindness.”
He smiled. “If it’s not written, how do you know? “
” By deduction. If humans were only cruel and destructive, we would have ceased our activities a long time ago. Therefore, the reason we survived is because cruelty was tempered by kindness. It’s not that dramatic and the people involved aren’t usually the ones responsible, so no one bother to record it. Human history is fundamentally a fight between our best instincts and our worst. “
“Which one will win? Josh asks.
“I don’t know. All I know is you have to choose sides.
Rios knows which side he’s on, but Nava is forced to listen to the other side, so he writes from multiple points of view. It sacrifices the suspense of a mysterious story – we learn who some of the villains before Rios are – in favor of a thriller structure in which seemingly unrelated narratives converge.
Full Disclosure: I’m a straight old white man and an agnostic. Therefore, I am not the best judge of the precision with which Nava portrays the lives of religious conservatives. I can only tell if the parts of Sits with man which concern the Herrons and the other members of the Ekklesia convince me as fiction. And I must admit that I find them a bit stiff and forced, despite the good intentions of the author. I doubt that many members of similar churches recognize themselves here. Daniel Herron seems to be the only genuine and Christian in the group. Jessica loves her father more than Jesus or her husband, losing her faith and turning to alcohol when she finds herself alone faced with the ousting of the old guard, who utter biblical platitudes but seem utterly corrupted by the power of the world.
On the other hand, Nava is comfortable describing gay life in Los Angeles – in 1986, at an intermediate stage where bands like QUEER exist but the parents of young men like Theo and Josh are still inclined to deny them. and put them on the streets, and when the frigid outbursts of AIDS-induced Puritanism stigmatized the bathhouse culture of the 1970s. Henry Rios insists that homosexual love is as valid as any other and models it. responsibility in his relationship with Josh, but he also stresses the importance of gay sex himself and refuses to regret or condemn his own youthful promiscuity – or that of Theo, for that matter. This would have been a courageous position for Rios in 1986, and it is courageous enough today, as Puritanism is still the fanatics’ first weapon of choice. Nava isn’t afraid to get a little scorching when her story calls for it.
Where is he really at home is to show us how a defense lawyer thinks and operates. Readers of Sits with man receive a revealing education on the differences between civil and criminal law and the negotiations that take place every day, inside and outside of every courtroom, between lawyers, judges, prosecutors and the police.
With such an admirable protagonist, a detective story needs raw supporting characters, and Nava is up to the challenge. Two stand out. First, there’s Freeman Vidor, Rios’ staunch investigator, a slim, smoky black man who is “absolutely no illusions about humans and human nature, a cynic to the bone.” […] As far as he was concerned, we were all specimens that he regarded with lucid curiosity and biting humor. Then there’s Marc Unger, a deputy city attorney whose job it is to protect the reputation of the LAPD and minimize the city’s losses from excessive force and wrongful death lawsuits against officers. Unger is a well-dressed, drinkable gay man with one foot in every camp: openly flirting with other gays but locked into his official role.
Rios loves him in a way but can’t trust him, as Unger is able to blatantly lie when Theo is found dead, apparent suicide, in the county jail. The prison is under the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s department, not the LAPD, Unger reminds him, and anyway, “the police are not murderers.” Rios knows that’s not necessarily true. “You may think I’m a sold out,” Unger says when it’s all over, “but […] you are as much a part of the system as I am. I’m very good at my job, and sometimes part of my job, like part of yours, is choking on vomit and making a deal. Rios does not argue – not then – but there is no doubt that he is eagerly awaiting a time when such compromises are no longer necessary.
Michael Harris reviewed books for the Los Angeles Times For more than 20 years. His latest novel, White Poison: A History of the Gold Rush, is available on Amazon.