Boystown 5: Murder Book: Review

Boystown 5: Murder Book
Marshall Thorton
MLR Press

Reviewed by Sally Hessney


Boystown 5: Murder Book, the fifth installment in Marshall Thornton’s hardboiled detective series, opens with a bombshell. Private investigator Nick Nowak’s lover, Bert Harker, has been murdered by a serial killer called the Bughouse Slasher. Shattered, Nick has the presence of mind to copy Bert’s murder book before the police search his apartment, and it is this murder book that supplies him with the clues he needs to hunt down Bert’s killer.

Marshall Thornton’s protagonist, Nick Nowak, is a Polish-American ex-policeman who lives and works in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood. Like other fictional private eyes, Nick is the perennial outsider, an openly gay man in Chicago in the 1980s, estranged from his family, at loggerheads with the political and social elite, and a thorn in the side of the Chicago Police Department. The series is set in the early 1980s. Nick is tall and muscular with brown hair and a bushy mustache. He wears Frye boots, chain smokes Marlboros, drives a lime-green Chevy Nova, and exudes a sexual charisma that other men find irresistible. His tough-guy demeanor belies a good heart and a dogged determination to pursue justice on behalf of those who are defenseless, downtrodden, disenfranchised, and dispossessed. In Boystown 4: A Time for Secrets, this means uncovering a decades-old crime that involves the persecution of gay men by the Chicago Police Department. In Boystown 5: Murder Book, it means tracking down a cold-blooded killer who targets gay teenagers—street hustlers, runaways, and throwaways—slitting their throats and dumping their bodies in the river.

Murder Book opens in the fall of 1982. Seven Chicagoans die after taking extra-strength Tylenol capsules laced with potassium cyanide. While these deaths derail the Chicago Police Department’s investigation into homicide detective Bert Harker’s murder, Nick is indefatigable in his determination to track down the Bughouse Slasher. (Incidentally, the Slasher gets his nickname from Chicago’s storied Bughouse Square, a park where one of his teenage victims was known to have frequented. Bughouse Square is the popular name for Washington Square Park, which became famous during the twentieth century as an open-air forum for fiery soapbox orators. During the legendary park’s heyday, agitators, atheists, evangelists, political radicals, reformers, and other so-called cranks and crazies would mount soapboxes to rant and rave to the crowds that gathered there to hear them.) Bert continues investigating the Bughouse Slasher case even after becoming disabled. The murder book is his case file, a blue binder filled with crime scene reports, arrest reports, forensic reports, autopsies, photographs, computer printouts, and phone tips. After Bert is killed, Nick takes the binder to a copy shop and copies each of its 624 pages one by one while standing over an enormous, harvest-gold Xerox machine.

The copy machine is one of those prosaic details that make the Boystown series so enormously entertaining. Nick has no choice but to canvass neighborhoods on foot, make calls from payphones, comb through reverse phone books, visit the county clerk’s office, and scroll through microfiche in the periodicals room at the library. These old-school methods jibe with Nick’s single-minded approach to sleuthing. There are no Internet searches, smartphones, or digital recording devices for this private eye. Other blasts from the past include brand names, such as 501 jeans and Reese’s Pieces, and TV shows, including Dynasty, which featured one of the earliest gay characters on television. The books also feature Chicago landmarks and hangouts, especially ones in Nick’s East Lakeview neighborhood, the first officially recognized gay neighborhood in the United States. Another hallmark of the Nick Nowak series is the sexual promiscuity among gay men that will be curtailed in the 1980s and 90s by the AIDS epidemic. In Boystown 4, Bert Harker is diagnosed with Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) or gay cancer, as AIDS was called before much was known about it. While Bert suspects that GRID is a sexually transmittable disease, Nick’s friends theorize that the illness is spread by fog machines at discotheques or that it originated in a bad batch of cocaine.

Boystown 5: Murder Book is lean and fast-paced. Written in the first person, Marshall Thornton’s prose style mirrors Nick’s laconic voice and blunt tone. In Nick, Thornton has created a complex hero, sexy and headstrong yet sentimental and capable of falling in love. Nick’s investigations are characterized by perseverance, but they are also steeped in danger occasioned by his stubborn nature and reckless behavior. The Nick Nowak series is a fun and exciting addition to the crime fiction genre. Boystown 5: Murder Book has been nominated for a Lamba Literary Award in the Gay Mystery category. Winners will be announced at the 26th Annual Lambda Literary Awards Ceremony on June 2, 2014. The next book in Thornton’s mystery series is Little Boy Dead, a prequel that takes Nick Nowak back to the fall of 1979 when he is first embarking on his career as a private investigator.

Sally Hessney is a program assistant at a nonprofit organization, where one of the educational missions is to educate teenagers about the dangers of binge drinking, prescription drug abuse, distracted driving, STDs, and other consequential issues.