MICHAEL NAVA has set his eighth Henry Rios mystery novel in 1986, a year that seems both distant and familiar. The pandemic raging then was AIDS — a virus deadlier than COVID-19, if somewhat harder to catch. What should have been a simple public health emergency became a battlefield in the culture wars, because AIDS initially was seen as a “homosexual disease.”

While the Reagan administration dithered, longtime foes of gay liberation (Pat Buchanan comes to mind) rushed in to regain ground they had lost in the ’70s, proclaiming that the disease was no less than God’s punishment for degeneracy. In 1986, even William F. Buckley Jr., that exemplar of gentlemanly conservatism, opined in The New York Times that “everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.”

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Also in 1986, an initiative (in reality Proposition 64, but called Prop 54 in Nava’s novel) appeared on the California ballot, calling for HIV-positive people to be “subject to quarantine and isolation statutes and regulations.” Born of the widespread, if mistaken, fear that AIDS could be spread through the air or by casual touch, the measure triggered a corresponding panic among gays. Wouldn’t it just be an excuse for people who didn’t like them anyway to dump them into concentration camps in the desert?

This is the atmosphere in which Henry Rios — like his creator, a gay Latino defense attorney in Los Angeles — strives to represent an activist group called QUEER that opposes Prop 54. The group claims to be nonviolent, but one of its members, Theo Latour, an HIV-positive drug addict and ex-porn star, is accused of bombing a large fundamentalist church, Ekklesia, killing its pastor, Daniel Herron, who has publicly backed the initiative. Complicating matters is the fact that Rios, a recovering alcoholic who has put his love life on hold while he rebuilds his law practice, is falling for a young man, Josh Mandel, who happens to be Theo’s roommate.

Also, as it turns out, Herron wasn’t as conservative a Christian as QUEER members might have thought. Nava gives us the backstory first: Herron was a former Haight-Ashbury hippie who had a peace-and-love kind of faith before he married the daughter of Ekklesia’s fire-and-brimstone founder and, with misgivings, yoked himself to the inerrancy of scriptures such as the injunction in Leviticus that any man who “lies with another man” should be put to death.

In fact, Herron has an explosive secret even bigger than the bomb. He has discovered that a lover from his hippie days, a Black woman in San Francisco, had a son by him. The boy, Wyatt, is HIV-positive and already seriously ill. To Herron’s credit, love trumps doctrine, and he desperately tries to get access to drugs that aren’t approved by the FDA but are available over the counter in Mexico. Without revealing his identity, he asks QUEER for help in smuggling the drugs and even consults Rios about it.

After the bombing, it becomes evident that an old-line faction loyal to Ekklesia’s founder isn’t unhappy to be rid of Herron. After his death, his conflicted widow, Jessica, finds herself a pawn in a power struggle within the church. And because gay people, like Black people, have long memories of official misconduct, Rios begins to suspect that a shadowy anti-terrorism unit of the Los Angeles Police Department has infiltrated QUEER and, to discredit the group and help the Prop 54 campaign, had an agent provocateur encourage Theo to plant the bombs.

In 1986, the Rodney King riots were only six years away and Daryl Gates was still chief of the LAPD, following two other right-wing icons: William Parker and Ed Davis. Nava runs down that history for readers who may have forgotten it. The LAPD wasn’t shy about adopting the COINTELPRO tactics of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for local purposes, using anticommunism as a rationale to attack dissident groups of every kind.

The outstanding thing about Henry Rios, compared to your typical hardboiled literary crime solver, is what a reasonable and decent guy he is — a genuine humanist. He believes in his fellow human beings despite having plenty of reasons not to. He lives in a society in which a significant minority, with varying degrees of seriousness, deny that he has a right to exist unless he denies his inborn nature, and he works in a legal system that has always been biased against his kind.

There’s a telling scene in which he and Josh, exploring what both men hope will become a long-term relationship, discuss how Spain expelled Josh’s Jewish ancestors while conquering Rios’s indigenous ancestors in Mexico. Josh remarks:

“History is just one long bloodbath, isn’t it, Henry?”

I breathed in the warm air, the scent of skin. “Well, there’s the official history, the one that gets written down, which is mostly a history of cruelty and destruction and then there’s the unwritten history, the secret history of kindness.”

He smiled. “If it’s not written down, how do you know about it?”

“By inference. If humans were only cruel and destructive, we would have gone out of business a long time ago. Therefore, the reason we’ve survived is because the cruelty has been tempered with kindness. It’s not as dramatic and the people involved aren’t usually the ones in charge, so no one bothers to record it. Human history is basically a contest between our better instincts and our worst ones.”

“Which one will win?” Josh asks.

“I don’t know. All I know is you’ve got to choose a side.”

Rios knows which side he’s on, but Nava is obliged to give the other side a hearing, so he writes from several points of view. This sacrifices the suspense of a mystery story — we learn who some of the villains are before Rios does — for the sake of a thriller structure in which seemingly unrelated narratives converge.

Full disclosure: I’m an old straight white guy, and an agnostic. Therefore, I’m not the best judge of how accurately Nava portrays the lives of religious conservatives. I can only say whether the parts of Lies with Man that concern the Herrons and other Ekklesia members are convincing to me as fiction. And I must admit that I find them somewhat stiff and forced, despite the author’s good intentions. I doubt that many members of similar churches would recognize themselves here. Daniel Herron seems to be the only genuine, feeling Christian in the bunch. Jessica loves her father more than Jesus or her husband, losing her faith and turning to drink when she’s left alone to face being ousted by the old guard, who mouth biblical platitudes but seem thoroughly corrupted by worldly power.

On the other hand, Nava is at home in describing gay life in Los Angeles — in 1986, at an in-between stage when groups like QUEER exist but the parents of young men like Theo and Josh are still apt to disown them and put them out on the streets, and when icy blasts of AIDS-induced puritanism have withered the bathhouse culture of the ’70s. Henry Rios insists that same-sex love is as valid as any other and models responsibility in his relationship with Josh, but he also insists on the importance of gay sex itself and refuses to regret or condemn his own youthful promiscuity — or Theo’s, for that matter. This would have been a brave stance for Rios to take in 1986, and it’s brave enough today, for puritanism is always the bigot’s first weapon of choice. Nava isn’t afraid to get a little raunchy when his story calls for it.

Where he’s really at home is in showing us how a defense attorney thinks and operates. Readers of Lies with Man will get an eye-opening education in the differences between civil and criminal law and the negotiations that go on every day, inside and outside every courtroom, among lawyers, judges, prosecutors, and police.

With such an admirable protagonist, a crime novel needs rough-edged secondary characters, and Nava is up to the challenge. Two stand out. First, there is Freeman Vidor, Rios’s trusty investigator, a thin, chain-smoking Black man who is “utterly without illusions about humans and human nature, a cynic to the bone. […] As far as he was concerned, we were all specimens he regarded with clear-eyed curiosity and mordant humor.” Then there is Marc Unger, an assistant city attorney whose job is to protect the LAPD’s reputation and minimize the city’s losses from excessive force and wrongful death suits against officers. Unger is a well-dressed, heavy-drinking gay man with a foot in each camp: openly flirtatious with other gays but closeted in his official role.

Rios likes him in a way but can’t trust him, because Unger is capable of blatantly lying when Theo is found dead, an apparent suicide, in the county jail. The jail is under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Department, not the LAPD, Unger reminds him, and anyway, “the police aren’t murderers.” Rios knows this isn’t necessarily true. “You may think I’m a sellout,” Unger says when it’s all over, “but […] you’re as much a part of the system as I am. I’m very good at my job, and sometimes part of my job, like part of yours, is choking back the puke and making the deal.” Rios doesn’t argue — not then — but there’s no doubt he looks forward to a time when such compromises will no longer be necessary.

¤

Michael Harris reviewed books for the Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years. His latest novel, White Poison: A Tale of the Gold Rush, is available on Amazon.