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Nava, Michael (b. 1954)  
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Mystery writer Michael Nava has increasingly been recognized as an important novelist whose mature work transcends the limited expectations of a popular and highly specialized genre.

Nava was born on September 16, 1954, in Sacramento, California, the second of six children in what he calls a "tragically unhappy" Chicano family. He was the son of a man with whom his mother, then married, had had an affair, and though he was given his stepfather's last name, he knew from an early age that his mother was not married to his father, who in effect abandoned him.

Molested by a family member at age eleven and realizing his gayness at age twelve, Nava knew that he had to escape his mother's religiosity and his stepfather's physical abuse. The one path open to him, an intellectually precocious student, was education. Determining early on that he wanted to be both a writer and a lawyer, he attended Colorado College on a scholarship, earning a B. A. in history in 1976. He then went to law school at Stanford University, where he earned a J. D. in 1981. All the while, he was writing poetry and fiction.

In 1980, Nava met Bill Weinberger, who became his first lover. He lived with Weinberger until 1989. Moving to the Los Angeles area in 1984, he practiced law and began working for the California Court of Appeals as a research attorney. After dissolving his relationship with Weinberger in 1989, he met Andrew Ferrero, and in 1995 they moved to San Francisco, where he now writes and practices law.

Nava is editor of Finale: Short Stories of Mystery and Suspense (1989) and co-author (with Robert Dawidoff) of Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America (1992), but he is best known for his seven-novel mystery series featuring gay Chicano lawyer Henry Rios: The Little Death (1986), Goldenboy (1988), How Town (1990), The Hidden Law (1992), The Death of Friends (1996), The Burning Plain (1997), and Rag and Bone (2001). Five of these seven novels have won the Lambda Literary Award as the best gay male mystery of the year.

Rios is in the mold of the American hardboiled detective who stands outside society and, as a consequence, sees more clearly than most its dark side. He is doubly an outsider in all of the worlds that he lives and works in. First, he is a Chicano in an Anglo society and an Anglo profession. Although he is a criminal lawyer whose brilliance is widely recognized, he often feels uncomfortable with and condescended to by his clients and his professional associates. Second, he is a gay man in the highly macho and Roman Catholic Chicano society, despised by his father for not being manly enough, and distrusted by other Chicanos because of his education, his profession, and what they perceive as his collaboration with the Anglo society at large.

A man who is obsessed with his work, Rios is a relentless defender of outsiders who are otherwise defenseless, most of them young gay men who are victims of a or exploitative society. In the process of defending them, he proves himself a tenacious and insightful detective.

The seven novels are more than simply puzzles to be unraveled. Indeed, the novels are not plot-driven, but character-driven. What sets them--especially the last five--apart from much detective fiction, in addition to their highly textured and allusive prose, is the increasing depth with which Nava probes character and motivation. Rios is gradually revealed to be more complex and more introspective than most fictional detectives, and his internal struggles and his often tortured relationships with others are what finally provide the major interest of the books and lift them above their formulaic genre.

In the course of the series, Nava grows from a competent mystery novelist to a writer of unusual depth. And over the course of the series, Rios develops in convincing yet not predictable ways. He moves from the Bay Area to Los Angeles; suffers from occupational burnout; succumbs to and eventually overcomes alcoholism; falls in love with a young man who is HIV-positive and subsequently loses him to AIDS; suffers a heart attack; slowly comes to terms with his homosexuality, his abusive father, his neglectful mother, and his emotionally distant lesbian sister; is nominated to a judgeship; and finally establishes an unusual but potentially nurturing family within his Chicano culture.

Although the novels are not autobiographical in the events that they relate, Rios shares much of Nava's life experience, so much so that Nava's accounts of his early life given in interviews, and in his beautifully written account of his Yaqui Indian grandfather in John Preston's 1992 anthology A Member of the Family: Gay Men Write about Their Families, almost exactly parallel, often in much the same language, passages in the novels where Rios ponders his childhood and adolescence and his family relationships. As Robert Dawidoff concludes, the seven Rios novels comprise a bildungsroman, or novel of education, of considerable interest and power.

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A portrait of Michael Nava by Stathis Orphanos.
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