Updated: Feb 23, 2021
As a reader, the rush of excitement when you stumble across a voice that’s specific and authentic – one that stands out from the crowd yet speaks to you personally - is hard to beat.
I’m not generally a reader of mysteries, which is my loss since it’s kept me away from six time Lambda Literary Award winner Michael Nava all these years. That was a mistake. Reading Lay Your Sleeping Head, a reworking of his 1986 Henry Rios mystery The Little Death, it quickly became obvious Nava is one of those quietly original and influential queer writers that should be household names – and not just to readers of mysteries and procedurals.
The strength of this dark slice of Californian noir isn’t the mystery that needs solving, however tightly plotted. Uncovering the truth behind the death of troubled golden boy Hugh and the corruption at the highest levels of Linden University (Stanford?) certainly kept me turning the page, but what kept me riveted was the character of Henry Rios himself, a gay, Latino public defender in the Bay Area.
You need a strong protagonist if you’re going to build a series of seven novels on the man’s broad shoulders. Nava borrows the well-worn tropes of the hardboiled genre – Henry’s dinner is two bowls of cereal washed down with a shot of Jack Daniel’s – only to subvert them by giving his guy a singular perspective informed by ethnicity, class, and sexuality.
Nava gets Henry’s mix of anti-hero resignation, hard-earned wisdom and persistent idealism just right. His marginalisation is born not just of a sexuality that doesn’t conform to its milieu (law enforcement, the 1980s), but how it intersects with a poor upbringing and the migrant experience. Henry doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere, and that includes San Francisco’s flourishing gay community. Many will relate.
Henry is locked in a constant struggle to get at the truth and expose the lies of others, while wrestling with his own self-delusions and deceptions. Placing a truth-seeker in an environment where one must lie to survive is very smart indeed.
Without sentiment or psychological over-explaining, we discover how a man is driven to pick a side in the fight between justice and power. This struggle motivates his actions, but also animates Henry’s interior conflict. He’s forever “swimming up from deep water, [his] lungs about to burst, trying to reach the surface and breathe.” From the first page we believe (in) this character: his quest becomes ours. When rays of light pierce through the clouds of misanthropy, manipulation and murder – in the form of a fleeting chance at human connection – we root for Harry to curl up in the sunlight and rest his weary head.
In one scene, Henry tours a man’s study. "On a bookshelf was the same small collection of gay novels that every gay man owned: City of Night, The City and the Pillar, A Single Man, Dancer from the Dance, Tales of the City." Michael Nava’s name belongs in the canon and Lay Your Sleeping Head wouldn’t look out of place on that shelf.
Come for the mystery, stay for the social commentary, and fall in love with a great character, safe in the knowledge there are more books where he came from.