Of Private Eyes and Prevarications :: Marshall Thornton on 'The Lies That Bind'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday March 12, 2016

Marshall Thornton doesn't just write about the adventures of gay private eye Nick Nowak in 1980s Chicago -- a homophobic place and time, though one replete with hot hunks always willing to get it on with the star of Thornton's mystery series. He also pens supernatural comedies and oddball contemporary adventures such as "The Ghost Slept Over" and "The Perils of Praline."

But it's the "Boystown" mysteries -- novels that share an overall title with another series, albeit a soapy and campy one, that debuted well after the start of Thornton's Chicago-set series, but otherwise bear no resemblance -- for which Thornton might be best known. It's not hard to see why: In a market stuffed with heterosexual private investigators of both genders, gay mystery fans can't be faulted for wanting to see one of their own between the covers...and between the sheets.

Nick Nowak's case files are stuffed with conquests and criminals. His is a noirish literary universe where it's thankfully the case that when trouble strolls through the door, he's unfailingly attractive and usually hot to trot -- a fact that Nowak has little compunction about enjoying.

Despite all that, the books also have a romantic side. Nowak's love life is complicated in all sorts of fascinating ways by partners with long-term potential. But here's where the series' third major story strand comes into play: It's the 1980s, AIDS is just hitting the gay community, and when it comes to life and love alike no one is really sure what "long term" means any more.

In a post at his website published just days after the latest Nick Nowak novel hit the shelves, Thornton muses, "There are many ways to classify the Boystown series. I think it would be fair to include it as AIDS literature.

"Most of AIDS literature took place in the eighties and nineties," Thornton continues, "and most of it was a cry for help, a warning bell rung as loudly as possible. Writing about AIDS from this vantage point is a very different experience. I'm able to focus on the way very real people reacted to the crisis. Knowing that things improve, allows me to focus on the ways in which individuals reacted, sometimes heroically, sometimes not.

"Of course, AIDS is still an issue," Thornton adds in his post. "It hasn't gone away. Reminding people of how it began and how we got to where we are is something I find to be vital."

The issue of addressing AIDS in these books is both a matter of historic necessity and dramatic urgency. In previous novels, various of Nick's friends and acquaintances have become ill, and some have even died of the disease. Among the casualties: Nowak's life partner Harker, a police detective who sacrificed himself in order to stop a gay-murdering serial killer, allowing himself to become one of the maniac's victims rather than succumb to the so-called "gay cancer." (His judgmental mother, Mrs. Harker, remains part of the series, and she's both a burden and blessing for Nick.)

If the specter of AIDS has persisted into the present day, love -- or the hope of finding it, at least -- is perpetual, just as sexual attraction is eternal. So is the human capacity for wreaking death and havoc out of greed, or aggression, or plain evil-heartedness. We're always going to need good guys, and Nick Nowak...grumpy, rash, hard-headed, but also loyal and sweet...is one you can count on.

The new book, "The Lies That Bind," is the eighth in the series. (There's also a prequel, "Little Boy Dead," which clocks in as "Book 0.") "The Lies That Bind" involves a dead man in the bathroom of Nowak's frenemy Christian Baylor, a young and ambitious reporter hot on a story about the S&M scene. It's obvious at once that Baylor is lying about the victim and the circumstances of his death; it's also plain to see that Baylor didn't commit the murder, which leaves Nick suspecting that the young man was the intended victim. But Can Nick cut through Christian's lies and diversions in time to stop the bad guy and save Baylor from the next attempt on his life?

Even as he's on the case, at home Nick's personal life is about to unravel: His new boyfriend is just escaping a suffocating career as a Catholic priest, and he's hungry for carnal knowledge. It's a blisteringly hot summer, and the sheets are damp with more than sweat...expect blood and tears to enter into the mix as well!

Marshall Thornton chatted with EDGE recently about the new novel, flashing back to the '80s, and what he's got cooking for future projects.

EDGE: Book eoght of the "Boystown" series finds Nick and his boyfriend Joseph sweating it out in a nasty hot summer -- it's 1984, I think. With all the other meticulously correct details, did you research how hot it was that year and decide to add that bit of background into the book? Or was it more a decision based on the idea that Joseph is a gay priest just escaping the church and starting to enjoy his sexuality? I mean, what could be hotter than that?

Marshall Thornton: Yes, it is summer of 1984. I do often check the weather during the period and August that year was very hot. I do also take dramatic license. Here, I was working primary from memory. I remember those few awful weeks we'd get every year in Chicago. The humidity can get very high there so 90 degrees means a lot more than it does in other parts of the country. Of course, I also like the way the weather fit with the story.

EDGE: As is usual for this series, "The Lies That Bind" includes recurring characters, including Ross (yay!) and irritating young reporter Christian Baylor. Mrs. Harker and Terry, the gay teen Mrs. Harker is helping look after, also appear, though only briefly. How do you decide which characters to give more weight to in the various books? Is it a matter of what the story calls for, or do you construct your stories partly around wanting to use specific characters more?

Marshall Thornton: Sometimes it's what the mystery needs. When Nick reaches out to friends for help with a case that feels very natural to me, it feels like what a small time private investigator would do. For the elements that aren't directly related to the mysteries it's more a matter of what feels right and what is logical in the timeline of the story. I'm not a big fan of "too much" happening to supporting characters, it would feel unnatural if each supporting character had a huge beat in every book.

EDGE: We've seen Nick have various lovers and even what might have been a life partnership that was tragically cut short. But is it possible that we might see him acquire a professional partner at some point?

Marshall Thornton:You know, I haven't ever thought about that. Probably not... in the past he's rejected too help from friends, so it's hard to see him doing that. It is an interesting thing to think about, though...

EDGE: As you can tell from the above, I'm a Ross fan and was delighted that he's back in the new novel. His is a sobering presence given that he's so sick and it's a decade before the life-saving AIDS drugs of the 1990s. Ross is a potent reminder of something younger gay men are hazy on, and that's how hard and horrible the early years of the plague were. Will you be keeping Ross around for a few books more?

Marshall Thornton: I don't want to give too much away, but the next two books I'm planning are both still in 1984. And... one of the things I've learned in my research is that there was a marked difference in how early long-term survivors were treated by their doctors. Many doctors at the time viewed AIDS as one incurable illness, rather than a syndrome that allows other illnesses to take hold. Those doctors didn't always do much more than try to make patients comfortable.

Other doctors treated each illness individually, recognizing that they could make a difference there even though they could not treat the weakening immune system. As you can hopefully see in this book, Dr. Macht is taking the second, more successful approach.

EDGE: Writing about the AIDS crisis is a necessity when you've set your books in the 1980s among a gay subculture. Do you also view these books as a means to remind people about the fact that after all these years, AIDS is still very much a serious concern, even though for many people it's a manageable condition now? Are you maybe looking to shake younger gay guys out of their complacency?

Marshall Thornton: I think for me it's about preserving what was there, keeping a record of what happened. Also, a lot of what's written AIDS in the period is about people at the forefront of the fight -- which is appropriate, of course. My books are more a worm's eye view. What I'm trying to present is what average people experienced, the quiet heroism of friends.

EDGE: As "The Lies That Bind" reminds us, you are not afraid to kill your darlings: A recurring character dies in this adventure. I know that it's fashionable these days to kill off significant characters, but you're not going to go the "Game of Thrones" route, I hope?

Marshall Thornton: The honest answer is I don't think so. When I began "Boystown 8" I did not plan to kill the character I killed. In fact, I began the book planning for there to be an entirely different murderer as well... but things happen while you're writing. At the moment, I am planning to kill a character in "Boystown 9" and then not kill anyone in "Boystown 10" -- but I can't say for sure until I finish those books. The one thing I don't like to be is predictable.

EDGE: There is a new character introduced in this book, that of an African American Chicago police officer named White. Will he be around for a while, also? He seems like a character who could add a lot to the series.

Marshall Thornton: I was talking about this a little at dinner last night. The series hasn't been especially diverse since those particular neighborhoods in that time period were not very diverse. I have been looking at ways to be more diverse and still be true to the period. I ran across the fact that in the 70s the CPD was under court order to hire and promote minorities and women, so that seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring in a few more diverse characters. It's an odd sort of equality that White isn't much better or worse than other detectives Nick has run into.

EDGE: There's so much going on in this new book I'm sure I don't know how you managed to pack it all into one story! How do you manage the balance of relationship, action, suspense, mystery, and everything else that goes into these novels?

Marshall Thornton: You asked the earlier question about how much attention I paid the actual weather; I pay a lot more attention to the calendar. I do always know the date and the day of the week. The rhythm in Nick's personal life actually comes from that. Certainly, the mystery element is always about one thing leading to another, but I'm very aware of how long things take and how much can reasonably be done in a day. I spend much of my writing time juggling book time to keep it logical.

EDGE: What can you say about 'Book 9'?

Marshall Thornton: "Boystown 9: Lucky Days" will be a bit of a courtroom drama, as Jimmy English finally goes to trial. In the middle of the trial, Nick will be sent to Vegas to find a reluctant witness -- I'm very excited about writing about Vegas in 1984. And of course there will be things happening on the home front.

EDGE: You know, I look back on Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority and the Republicans calling for gays to be barred from practicing medicine or being allowed to teach school, and I know that in many ways things have gotten better. But then I look at the current crop of absurdities -- the Republican Party's persistent racism and homophobia, not to mention the party's ideological implosion; so-called "religious freedom" laws that are nothing but a state-sanctioned license to target LGBT people for discrimination. If nothing else, the 1980s have a nostalgic appeal because that was in many ways a simpler time. How do you respond, dipping back into that era to write these books and then re-emerging in the here and now?

Marshall Thornton: Many of the things happening today have their roots in the eighties, good and bad. AIDS certainly spurred the LGBT community to a heightened activism, and the political savvy learned during the '80s fed right into the marriage equality movement. Conservatism took hold with Reagan, and to a large degree we haven't shaken it loose yet (a hard thing to do since so many can't even identify it as the problem).

EDGE: How about your other writing projects? What have you got going on that doesn't involve our favorite gay gumshoe?

Marshall Thornton: I'm taking a stab at sci-fi/horror with a book titled "Never Rest," which will hopefully be out by summer. After that I'm planning a sequel to the very popular "The Ghost Slept Over," this time with a new ghost and a mystery.

"Boyston Book 8: The Lies That Bind" is now available from Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Boystown-Lies-That-Bind-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B019ZS0SHM/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1457731374&sr=1-3&keywords=Marshall+Thornton

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.