Gay Noir, Killer ’80s :: Marshall Thornton on ’From the Ashes’
Marshall Thornton has a deft touch for comedy, having authored several funny novels: "The Ghost Who Slept Over," about a man being haunted by his ex; the gay "fish out of water" Hollywood spoof "The Perils of Praline"; and the just-released "My Favorite Uncle," about a gay man and his also-gay -- but Christian -- nephew.
Thornton is also the author of a series of mystery novels centered around a tough-guy private detective in the 1980s. The name of his gay gumshoe is Nick Nowak: He's a Polish-American former cop. Former, that is, because after an incident in which he and his boyfriend were jumped by gay-bashers, he was forced out of the closet and into the unpleasant reality of how Chicago's blue brotherhood of the time treated gay colleagues.
Throughout the series, Nowak has dealt with both the cops he used to work with and his own prejudiced relatives, navigated the rocky terrain of relationships that have ended, and seen his most recent relationship, with lover Bert Harker (another gay cop) reach a tragic ending after Harker struggled with illness in the early days of AIDS. The twist: Harker didn't want to die of the plague. He wanted to go out like a hero, and he did. He used himself as bait to draw out a serial killer targeting gays; his sacrifice allowed Nowak to collar (and extinguish) the so-called "Bughouse Slasher."
In the newest installment, "Boystown Book 6: From the Ashes," Nowak, after a year laying low, licking his wounds (and soaking them in booze), and living in seedy conditions, is back on a case. Not a very promising case, and not one he wants to look into; for one thing, Harker's deeply religious, homophobic mother has brought the matter of a priest's death to him, and he wants nothing to do with Mrs. Harker. Besides, the priest died of a heart attack... But is there more to the story after all? As Nowak, despite himself, gets more involved in the mystery of just why the priest succumbed, he starts to suspect that while it might have been a heart attack that felled him, the priest's death may very well have been engineered by a clever killer.
Hovering in the background is the terrifying specter of AIDS. It's 1984, and a miasma of fear, prejudice, panic, and misinformation swirls even as gay man after gay man sickens and dies. Nick is starting to see the results even among his own tattered circle of friends. Thornton has done a masterful job of incorporating the AIDS crisis into his novels, and this newest addition to the series sees him handle the issue with an effective, delicate touch.
EDGE caught up with Marshall Thornton for a chat about Nowak's newest adventure, the 1980s, and what's next.
Rising to Life
EDGE: This new book in the "Boystown" series finds Polish American former cop Nick Nowak down in the dumps -- pretty much literally! He’s hit rock bottom, or come close to it. What informed your decision as a writer to take him there?
Marshall Thornton: "Boystown 5: Murder Book" ended in a really dark spot so part of the challenge of this book was figuring out how to bring him back without ignoring or minimizing his grief. I purposely moved forward more than a year to allow him to be ready to come back from the very dark place he’d been in.
EDGE: By leaving Nick half his estate and his mother the other half, Bert cleverly ensured that Nick would feel obligated to look out for his mother, Mrs. Harker, even though she and Nick detest each other. Now, in "From the Ashes," Nick and Mrs. Harker are finding their way to some common ground. Will we see that relationship continue to develop?
Marshall Thornton: Yes, though she may not figure as strongly as she does in this book. I’ve always liked that character despite her behavior. It’s easy to forget that in Mrs. Harker’s lifetime, homosexuality was not only viewed as a mental illness but a mental illness that was caused by mothers. Her reactions come from a deep place of shame and in a way she’s as much a victim of homophobia as she a homophobe.
EDGE: Seeing as how you’ve set the "Boystown" mystery series in the 1980s, the issue of AIDS was inevitably going to arise, and now Nick is starting to see his friends die off. Fans are going to be distressed and horrified to see one friend in particular fall ill. How bad is it going to get in the books?
Marshall Thornton: It’s a delicate balance. Chicago was not hit as hard as New York and San Francisco. There’s a great device used in "The Normal Heart" where a character collects Rolodex cards of all the people who’ve died. Anything like that in my series would be taking things too far and would be untruthful.
That said, people did get HIV and AIDS in Chicago, and they did die. I knew those people. There’s been a lot of really great work about AIDS in that period, but most of it is about people at the forefront of the crisis. I’m more interested in collecting the "ground level" reactions and experiences of the sort of people I knew during the period.
EDGE: At the same time, the series maintains a sense of humor as well as a very considered touch regarding the tragic events of the 1980s. "From the Ashes" doesn’t feel exploitative of the AIDS crisis, but it also doesn’t sugar-coat anything. Do you find this a difficult line to walk?
Marshall Thornton: Thank you. That’s a lovely thing to say. Every time something bad has happened in my own life I’ve always made jokes - I’m big on gallows humor - so it would seem very odd to me to write this without humor.
Fun and Pulpy
EDGE: In mean this in the best possible way: The "Boystown" books have a fun, pulpy feel to them, but at the same time there’s a strain of real drama in these stories, some very poignant scenes that drive home just how difficult the times were for gay men. How do you manage to combine these sensibilities?
Marshall Thornton: I try not to think about it. I’m scared if I do I won’t be able to do it again.
EDGE: The gay community’s response to the AIDS crisis, and to the kind of hostility and indifference they faced from the general public, was instrumental in creating today’s groundswell of advances toward equality. Will you be building those sorts of historical events into the books as they progress?
Marshall Thornton: Yes, absolutely. It’s really become part of the point of writing the series.
EDGE: The books are narrated by Nowak in the first person voice. He’s a pretty hard-boiled sort! Where does his tough-guy attitude come from?
Marshall Thornton: Some of it has to do with his perception of what masculinity is. During the period (and often still today) being gay was perceived as being non-masculine. When I put that together with his background as a cop - which would be ultra-masculine - not to mention the pressures from his family, that creates a constant tension within that makes Nick uncomfortable with anything too rosy, anything too overtly emotional.
EDGE: How do you get into Nick’s voice and persona as a writer? Do the books give you a playground for your own gruff side?
Marshall Thornton: I always enjoy writing the books. Doing one book a year means I’m never too far away from drafting or editing. Then I’ve also spent a good amount of time working on the audio books. Working on one book always leads to the next so I’m just never very far away from Nick. And yes, I can be a bit gruff myself.
EDGE: Nick is also in his mid-30s at this point, and he’s starting to sound a little like a middle-aged guy; he doesn’t "get" computers, he doesn’t like the music of the 1980s. What’s he going to make of the decade’s fashions? Of Madonna? Of all those horrible Tom Hanks movies?
Marshall Thornton: That’s something I’m going to have to think through. Nick is about ten years older than I am so I do have to make adjustments. I am thinking it will be fun to give him a computer at some point. And as for Tom Hanks... there’s already a "Splash" reference in "Boystown 7: Blood Lines."
EDGE: I imagine Nick to be a 1940s man in the best tradition of the hard-boiled gumshoe, though in the wrong decade. Is he your "gay Sam Spade?"
Marshall Thornton: Sort of, yes. I love noir and I love that period of noir writing. I can also see that Nick would be very influenced by those iconic masculine figures.
EDGE: Let’s imagine for a moment that HBO or AMC came to you and said, "We’d love to make a TV series out of your books." Who would you envision as playing Nick on TV?
Marshall Thornton: I try hard not to think about that. In the event that I’m asked to turn the books into a series I don’t want to have any preconceived notions. Television is an incredibly collaborative process so I want to remain open minded.
That said, anyone who played Nick would have to be someone everyone wants to have sex with. I definitely want to be involved in the process, since even interviewing the rejects would be fun. Hell, going through the 8x10s would be fun.
EDGE: What will Nick be getting up to in Book 7?
Marshall Thornton: As alluded to in "Boystown 6: From the Ashes," Nick begins working with [mob figure] Jimmy English’s lawyers, attempting to shield Jimmy from a Federal Task Force looking into his criminal activities. He will also be doing some background work on the case of a dentist who murdered her unfaithful husband -- he’s meant to be enlisting her friends and family to testify on her behalf during the sentencing phase but instead uncovers the real reason she killed her husband.
EDGE: You have a just-released non-Boystown book, a comedy called "My Favorite Uncle," about a gay man and his gay Christian nephew. And you have two other comic novels, as well, "The Perils of Praline" and "The Ghost Slept Over." Are there similarities to how comedies and mysteries have to be mapped out and plotted?
Marshall Thornton: Yes, "My Favorite Uncle" came out this week. It’s definitely a comedy. I spent about ten years writing spec screenplays. I used to go back and forth between thrillers and comedies. When I mentioned to a fellow screenwriter that I thought that was a little weird, he said, "No, it’s not. They’re both about obsession." I think that’s very apt. It’s surprising how easy it is to turn a thriller, particularly a noir thriller, into a comedy.
EDGE: What other non-"Boystown" projects are you working on?
Marshall Thornton: I’m working on a new mystery series following the adventures a young sociology student turned Pinkerton agent in Chicago a hundred years ago. Lots of research there. But I’m enjoying it.
"From the Ashes" is now available from MLR Press, along with earlier books in the "Boystown" series and comic novels "The Ghost Slept Over" and "The Perils of Praline."
"My Favorite Uncle" is available from Wilde City Press.
More information about Marshall Thornton and his work available at marshallthornton.wordpress.com