Title: The Henry Rio Mystery Series (Books One – Seven)
Author: Michael Nava
Narrator: Gregory St. John
Publisher: Audible Studios
Run Time: 54 hours total (approx.)
Category: Gay Literature, Mystery
At a Glance: These books are canon in Gay Lit; they should hold a place in your audio collection as well.
Reviewed By: Mike
Blurb ~ The Little Death: In the first book of the acclaimed Henry Rios series, a lawyer doggedly pursues a murder investigation into the lions’ den of San Francisco’s moneyed elite.
A burnt-out public defender battling alcoholism, Henry Rios has reached a crossroads in his life. While interviewing his former lover Hugh Paris in jail, Rios goes through the motions, but notices that Paris is far more polished and well off than the usual suspects arrested for drug possession. Paris is mysteriously bailed out – but a few weeks later, he turns up on Rios’s doorstep. Skittish and paranoid, he admits to using heroin and says he’s afraid that his wealthy grandfather wants to murder him.
Rios tries to help Paris get clean, but when Paris is found dead of an apparent heroin overdose, Rios is the only one who considers foul play. Determined to find Paris’ killer, Rios knocks on San Francisco’s most gilded doors, where he discovers a family tainted by jealousy, greed, and hate. They’ve been warped by a fortune someone’s willing to kill – and kill again – to possess.
At once an atmospheric noir mystery and a scathing indictment of a legal system caught in the maws of escalating corruption, The Little Death chronicles one man’s struggle to achieve true justice for all.
Review: When the first Henry Rios book, The Little Death, first appeared in print in 1986, no one knew that Henry’s journey would tell the story of gay life from the time of the start of the plague that became the AIDS epidemic, up to 2001 when Rag and Bone was published, or that the series would become a classic in Gay Literature. It gives us a look at the unvarnished truth of an era. The first book is a fight for acceptance against a backdrop of outright hate and derision for men who were gay, because gay meant AIDS, first and last, to the outside world. By the end of the series, Henry is finding his way to being comfortable in his own skin and accepting himself, as is the world for finally caring—and for gay men finding that love may not be the impossible unicorn those of a certain age were always taught that is was. While the books, as a whole, explore the arc of Henry’s life, each one is a self-contained mystery that Henry must use his wits, friends, colleagues, and the legal system to solve. Each book takes on some aspect of the gay world from the late 1980s to the dawn of the new millennium, and looks at each from inside and outside of gay culture.
When the series begins, Henry is trying to restore his life. He is a recovering alcoholic, he has left being a state attorney, he’s starting his own law practice, and he’s an openly gay Latino man in the uber macho world of California law, Mexican culture, and a world terrified that, Gay = Death to one and all.
When Henry finds himself defending a young man who appears to be guilty of murder, he and the accused have to fight biases from the police, the media, the prosecution, the accused’s family, and even his own misguided self-hate to get to the solution that opens eyes and a few hearts along the way. In the course of book one, the newly middle aged Henry has to fight the attraction to a much younger man, who may or may not be guilty of a crime, while nursing his own still fragile sobriety.
The books go on to tackle the topics of a life in transition as well as a world warring with its need to shun the “other” and to confront its own lack of compassion. From the cover-up of the murder of a closeted elected official, to the fight over the remains of a dead lover when the victim’s family wants to erase their gay son’s past and death due to complications from AIDS, the fight is both outwardly heroic and internally taxing—having always to be on, be right, and be above reproach as the straight world beings its first tentative acceptance that being gay isn’t a failure or a disease. It is simply another kind of normal that isn’t always easy to look at. There are types portrayed that many in the gay community took issue with, as they exposed our own less than pristine behavior towards one another. There are bitchy gossip queens; angry, closeted men who are jealous of those who are out despite the danger it puts them in; a family who alternately rejects and expects Henry to not be gay. Or, at least not be “that” gay, and to always know which “that” not to be.
By the end of the series, Henry finds a common path with his lesbian sister, his estranged niece and her son, and Henry finds that being gay, middle-aged, and at a crossroads can leave you open to finding that last piece of yourself that makes you feel complete. Not whole, necessarily, but complete.
Narrated throughout by Gregory St. John, the books take on a new meaning and power. Audible recently released all seven to culminate with Nava’s rewrite of book one (now in print only) re-titled Lay Your Sleeping Head, and presenting in a contemporary setting. Each character has a point of view. Each character has their own way of coping with the world at large. Every one of them feels like a complete person. The stable of voices St. John employs are consistent through the entire series as characters walk on and off the scene only to return books later with the same voice and razor-fine delivery.
Unlike when they were first written, the listener does not have to wait a year or more between titles. You can take them on one at a time, or all at once. You will not be disappointed. They are more than worth the price of purchase. They tell the story of a life, but they also tell the story of all of us who lived through this era, to varying degrees of success. Henry’s fight was our fight. St. John gives Henry his voice and his heart. He also somehow ages Henry over the series. You can hear him fighting the world-weariness and being beaten down personally as his professional successes and failures are revealed. Losses come and go, and each one of them is reflected in the voice work done here. It should not be missed. Buy the books at your leisure. Just know that you will be, at turns, entertained, heartbroken, and joyful, and entirely at the mercy of Gregory St. John’s undeniable talents.
These books are canon in Gay Lit; they should hold a place in your audio collection as well.
You can buy The Henry Rios Mystery Series here: