Title: Carved in Bone
Series: Henry Rios Mysteries: Book Eight
Author: Michael Nava
Publisher: Persigo Press
Length: 226 Pages
At a Glance: Carved in Bone goes straight for the emotional jugular. And Nava’s aim is true.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: November, 1984.
Criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios, fresh out of rehab and picking up the pieces of his life, reluctantly accepts work as an insurance claims investigator and is immediately assigned to investigate the apparently accidental death of Bill Ryan.
Ryan, part of the great gay migration into San Francisco in the 1970s, has died in his flat of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas line, his young lover barely surviving. Rios’s investigation into Ryan’s death – which Rios becomes convinced was no accident – tracks Ryan’s life from his arrival in San Francisco as a terrified 18-year-old to his transformation into a successful businessman.
What begins for Rios as the search for the truth about Bill Ryan’s death becomes the search for the meaning of Ryan’s life as the tsunami of AIDS bears down on the gay community.
Review: Carved in Bone, the eighth installment in Michael Nava’s revered Henry Rios Mysteries series, is a story composed of loneliness and fear. There is, among other recurring elements, a thread of anxiety that undercuts the basic need for human connection which goes straight for the emotional jugular. And Nava’s aim is true.
The story opens in 1971, in a small town located on the outermost fringes of Chicago’s suburban sprawl, not with Henry but with eighteen-year-old Bill Ryan. Nava grooms readers to form an emotional connection to Bill, to foster an understanding of the exhilaration he feels to finally explore his sexuality in a true and meaningful way. And then in empathy as the spontaneous joy is replaced by horror and grief in the aftermath of what should have been a perfect moment. Nava succeeds in weaving the emotional connectivity between character and reader here, and these were the first of many more tears I would offer to this story before its end.
During his stay in the hospital, Bill is remade into someone new. He becomes one more in the plenitude of throwaway kids, offered a couple hundred dollars and dumped at the bus station by his mother to make his own way in the world, yet another soul added to the myriad souls which already populated the landscape of a San Francisco that was becoming a sanctuary for gay men. The structure and shape Bill takes, thereafter, is delineated first by his declaring out loud, for the first time, that he’s gay; followed by the people he meets, the friends he makes, the spaces he moves through, and the found family and the commonality he discovers within the community. He is galvanized by the acceptance he hadn’t expected to find, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t still an undercurrent of loneliness that, as the years passed, morphed into an emotionally paralyzing fear and self-loathing.
Bill’s and Henry’s stories converge in 1984, when Henry is hired by Western Insurance to investigate a life insurance claim. It’s far from his dream job, but after nearly drinking himself to death, Henry doesn’t have much choice but to pursue it. The investigation into Bill’s sudden death appears to be a clear-cut case of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. As Henry digs deeper, however, the clues and facts don’t add up, and, in fact, he uncovers a graver, unexpected layer of criminality. It’s through his investigation that the story alternates points of view. Rather than Henry showing readers, through the procedural of the investigation, how Bill spent the ten-plus years after his arrival in San Francisco, we are instead offered a more intimate view of the years during which Bill made the Castro his home with his best friend Waldo. Readers are made firsthand witnesses to Bill falling in and out of love, and then in love again for the final time, with Nick Trejo, a man ten years his junior. By then, Bill had made something out of the nothing he began with, but his past still nipped doggedly at his heels.
Found family and falling in love never quite fills the hole left gaping in Bill’s life caused by the misery of rejection and the belief that he was made wrong and isn’t deserving of the life he sees so clearly but cannot grasp. Bill continued to hope for the hopeless, but his efforts were an exercise in futility. As a result, he punished himself for who he was, which is reflected in the choices he made, and those ties to his past eventually became a noose. Bill’s should have been, could have been, the story of the throwaway kid who made good. But, as Nava states so candidly in his Author Notes:
“It’s hard for any human being to be hated for something that he or she cannot change, and even those who are strong enough to resist the hatred as irrational cannot help but be damaged by it.”
This is where the book finds accord with its title. Bill’s self-loathing and abject fear became a living and breathing thing, carved into his core and crippling him mentally and emotionally. This went on to spawn the possessive, suffocating love Bill offered Nick, who embodied the antithesis of who Bill was. The impact of the AIDS epidemic and the near debilitating terror it inspired puts paid to any sort of peace Bill might have found, which Nava handles with unvarnished truth and unbridled compassion. The losses were devastating, the sense of helplessness was crushing as a dispassionate government watched, and it becomes clear, as Henry’s investigation continues, that anger and fear and loneliness are a few things he and Bill had in common, which was the catalyst for the desire to each numb their feelings in various ways.
As Henry pursues answers with the resolve readers of this series are familiar with, it is impossible not to draw parallels and note the clear juxtaposition between Henry’s investigative tenacity and his reluctance to pick apart his own past and poke at some of the more profound feelings he’s been holding on to for years. His AA sponsor, Larry Ross, becomes an invaluable cog in the machine of Henry’s sobriety and a voice of reason when Henry appears headed towards disaster with a man who, while never anything but honest with Henry, was also not good for him. Larry’s role is also emotionally underscored by a revelation that adds yet another gut-check to a story rife with emotional gut-checks, propelling Henry into making a life-changing decision.
That Henry Rios was introduced more than thirty years ago, and that his character still resonates with audiences today, is a testament to the timelessness and relevance of his stories as well as to the author’s storytelling acumen and the sympathy Nava builds between reader and character. The alchemy of emotions that can change a person for better or worse are commonalities of a human condition that bridges differences. The setting of the story is an homage to a San Francisco both past and present, to her unique landscape and the diversity of her people. The Painted Ladies, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Castro, and her vibrancy come alive and provide the backdrop for a mournful time in history. A painful time that echoes across the years and lives on in the memories of those who survived and in the journals and stories of those who didn’t.
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