Boystown: Three Nick Nowak Mysteries by Marshall Thornton

Rating: 8/10 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 
Title: Boystown: Three Nick Nowak Mysteries
Author: Marshall Thornton
Genre: Detective/PI
URL: Torquere
Price: US $5.99
Other Information/warnings: Violence, explicit sexual material
Summary [from the publisher]:

A former police officer turned private investigator, Nick Nowak is haunted by his abrupt departure from the department, as well as, the traumatic end of his relationship with librarian Daniel Laverty. In these three stories set in Chicago during the early eighties, Nick locates a missing young man for a mysterious client, solves a case of arson at a popular nightspot, and goes undercover to prove a dramatic suicide was actually murder.

When he isn’t detecting, and sometimes when he is, Nick moves through a series of casual relationships. But his long suppressed romantic side surfaces when he meets Detective Bert Harker. Will he give love another chance? Or, will he continue to bury himself in the arms of strangers?

My review:

This collection of novellas introduces the reader to Nick Nowak, former cop and now PI in the traditional hard-boiled mould. Smokes too much, and eats too much junk food? Check. Loves Jazz? Check. Cynical about love? Check. Sad past? Check. Difficult relationship with the police? Check.

And yet he’s not that typical. He was never a super-powered detective, just a lowly beat cop. The bad relationship with the police is mostly with members of his homophobic Polish family, who harrass him for the shame of being gay. He lost his job because he was forcibly outed by his boyfriend, whom he still loves and misses, not because of internal police corruption. And cynical he might be about love – or claim to be – but he’s still looking, albeit in all the wrong places.

This is not m/m. It’s not even romance, despite slight glimmers of hope in Nick’s rather dreary existence.  It’s gay fiction, with gay male readers in mind, I suspect, with the frequent (and frankly, from my perspective, rather dull) meaningless sexual encounters with everyone from friends to people in the same building where he’s making enquiries. (Nick just seems to exude a perpetual ‘up for it’ pheromone.) The emotional tone is deliberately muffled, and even though it’s told from Nick’s POV, he remains strangely opaque, though there’s a progression in our knowledge and his development from the first story to the third. (There are two more collections, both available from Torquere, and I guess we learn even more about Nick as we read more.) It’s that opacity which makes these stories somewhat less satisfying than they could be. The setting is the height of the pre-AIDS gay era, where gay men had more to fear from homophobes than diseases. However, the setting never really came alive for me. Nick’s shutdown emotionality infects the entire narrative and tone, leading to a curiously distant experience for the reader. By the end of this collection, I was mildly curious about Nick’s future, hopeful of an eventual HEA for him, but he hadn’t stamped himself as an individual the way a Sam Spade does, or even a Samantha Moon. Being a gay detective in fiction isn’t – at least any more – isn’t enough on its own to make a character memorable. Nick doesn’t have anything else to distinguish himself.

Thornton’s writing is very tight indeed, spare and economical, and beautifully edited (a minor miracle considering the publisher.) He’s clearly an author of skill and strong dedication to research. This is a collection of stories which offers a good deal to enjoy, provided one takes it for what it is and doesn’t expect what it is not, i.e. a gay romance. Well worth a look.