After a two-decade absence, author Michael Nava’s award-winning Henry Rios mystery series returns with its eighth installment, Carved in Bone. (This volume fits chronologically between the first and second books of the series, so it is identified in the sequence as No. 2.) Rios is a gay Latino criminal defense lawyer whom The New Yorker has called “a detective unlike any previous protagonist in American noir.”
The story of Carved in Bone begins not with Rios, but instead with Bill Ryan, an 18-year-old in a small town in Illinois in 1971. Bill is caught by his father in a sexual situation with another boy. His father beats Bill brutally, sending him to the hospital with grave injuries. When he recovers, he is disowned by his family, forced to leave home and put on a bus. He ends up in San Francisco.
Nava then moves the story forward to 1984, when the AIDS epidemic is rapidly unfolding in San Francisco. There we find Henry Rios, who has just left rehab and is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings while barely making ends meet as an attorney working on his own. Rios’s sponsor in AA suggests that he get a job as an insurance investigator, and given his dire financial condition, he decides to take his sponsor’s advice. His first assignment as an investigator is to look into the death of a gay man who died from a gas leak in his home. That man is Bill Ryan. In trying to track down Bill’s missing lover and the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, Nick Trejo, Rios discovers that Bill’s death might not have been an accident after all.
Nava takes the reader on a journey back and forth through time, from Rios’s investigation in the 1984 present to Bill’s arrival in San Francisco 13 years earlier. In the process he reveals how Bill evolved as a gay man, making his home in the Castro and finding an enduring connection with his best friend, Waldo. Always searching for love, Bill finally found it with Nick, who was 10 years his junior. Throughout it all, Bill suffered from very low self-esteem, stemming from his family’s rejection; he seemed to punish himself by escaping to the baths and having sex with strangers. But he had some inner strength as well, and turned himself professionally into a successful real estate agent and developer.
Rios’s story — his struggle with his own personal demons — is revealed through his relationship with his AA sponsor and the affair he has with a straight man. The twists and turns of his investigation into Bill’s death keep the narrative moving apace and will fill readers with suspense. The implacable AIDS crisis, which provides a backdrop for both characters as they try to heal their wounded psyches, heightens the drama and heartache.
The way that the story arcs of investigator and victim reflect on each other ultimately gives both added emotional depth and makes Carved in Bone a great read. In Michael Nava’s thoughtfully interwoven gay narratives, Bill’s tragic death and Rios’s sober self-realizations can be seen as two sides of the same fate.