Title: Lay Your Sleeping Head
Author: Michael Nava
Publisher: Korima Press
Length: 272 Pages
Category: Mystery/Suspense, Murder Mystery
At a Glance: Michael Nava’s prose is inspired, and Lay Your Sleeping Head is an absolute must read.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: Thirty years ago, The Little Death introduced Henry Rios, a gay, Latino criminal defense lawyer who became the central figure in a celebrated seven novel series.
In a brilliant reimagination of The Little Death, Lay Your Sleeping Head retains all the complexity and elegance of the plot of the original novel but deepens the themes of personal alienation and erotic obsession that both honored the traditions of the American crime novel and turned them on their head.
Henry Rios, a gifted and humane lawyer driven to drink by professional failure and personal demons, meets a charming junky struggling to stay clean. He tells Rios an improbable tale of long-ago murders in his wealthy family. Rios is skeptical, but the erotic spark between them ignites an obsessive affair that ends only when the man’s body is discovered with a needle in his arm on the campus of a great California university.
Rios refuses to believe his lover’s death was an accidental overdose. His hunt for the killer takes him down San Francisco’s mean streets and into Nob Hill mansions where he uncovers the secrets behind a legendary California fortune and the reason the man he loved had to die.
Review: Not having read this book in its original incarnation, I can’t say in what specific ways Lay Your Sleeping Head has evolved from The Little Death, the birth of the Henry Rios series, but I can say, without reservation, that author Michael Nava has penned a superlative novel. Being a fan of Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter series, I can also say—again, without reservation—that Henry Rios stands alongside Hansen’s Brandstetter as a pivotal icon in the mystery genre.
The author sets the tone of the story beginning on page one—in June of 1982—when readers walk the halls of Linden’s jail with Henry Rios. The sights and scents of the lockup draw an immediate and vivid sensory connection to the story, even as an emotional connection is drawn in Henry’s description of what would be the beginning of the end of his career as a criminal defense attorney. Disillusioned and angry and drinking to cope with a past with which he’s never found resolution, Henry is a man who’s going through the motions of life, a half-life in which he exists from one day to the next. One thing that becomes clear as crystal from the start of this book is that it is not going to be a light read, but the realism in his characterization and the time period in which the story is set draws the reader in and adds to the overall investment in seeing where Henry will lead and what obstacles he will face.
Meeting Hugh Paris, the young junkie with whom Henry falls in love, introduces not only the bittersweet romantic element to the novel but the drama and mystery as well. Hugh’s backstory is as tragic as his present is rife with the burden of family and not one but two unsolved murders, and the struggle to overcome his addiction. When Hugh is discovered dead in his car on the campus of the local university, the needle still in his arm that would suggest he OD’d on the heroin he used to blunt the memories of childhood abuse, the mystery in the story is set in motion as Henry’s suspicions grow that Hugh didn’t die by his own hand. Henry faces no small amount of prejudice and pushback in this story, nor any small amount of danger as he gets closer to the truth, and his narration of events in the first person brings a personal and thoroughly effective touch to the telling. Finding an ally on the police force, one who believes Henry’s suspicions without the benefit of substantive evidence, illustrates the frustrating and tedious business of investigation. Henry’s perseverance, however, ultimately gives substance to the belief that Hugh’s ruled suicide is not an open and shut case.
I hesitate to use the word history in this review since Lay Your Sleeping Head isn’t technically a historical novel, but there is an aspect of “don’t forget those who came before you” to the story, a stark reminder of where three decades has led, and the onset of the gay cancer that would go on to become an epidemic that killed so many under the noses of a dispassionate government. Where the distant past does come into play in the novel is a blunt and brutal reminder that the robber barons had once built their fortunes on the backs of immigrants, which plays into the investigation of Hugh’s murder and provides a reminder of the shameful role that injustice played in the foundation of this country.
Michael Nava’s prose is, in a word, inspired. This novel isn’t filled with bombast or hyperbole; rather, its narrative is delivered in classic noir style, with a hardboiled and self-destructive protagonist as its shining feature. With an intimate knowledge of our judicial system and a keen eye for detail, Lay Your Sleeping Head explores the power of corruption and the corruption of power, when avarice and murder instigate the pursuit of justice for a man who was failed by everything and everyone in his short life. Betrayal and intrigue add an intensity to the story, supported by the characterization of a hero who impresses with his unyielding belief in right and wrong and his unwillingness to compromise those beliefs.
Lay Your Sleeping Head is an absolute must read. Read it for Henry, read it for the murder mystery, read it for the elegant narrative, and read it for the Author’s Note at the end. Michael Nava’s note to readers is very nearly as compelling as the book itself.
You can buy Lay Your Sleeping Head in print here (watch for other buying and format options coming soon):