Comings Out: Secrecy, Sexuality, and Murder in Michael Nava's Rag and Bone

Article excerpt

Mystery novels featuring gay sleuths constitute an ideal forum for writers to explore homosexuality, for in seeking the knowledge required to solve a crime, the gay detective also finds himself confronting the epistemological questions raised by his own sexual identity. One novelist who has successfully capitalized on analogies between the enigmas posed by murder and homosexual desire is Michael Nava, author of a seven-novel series starring gay Chicano defense attorney Henry Rios. (1) In a 1999 interview with Philip Gambone, Nava admits that his series, published between 1986 and 2001, closely adheres to various conventions of the American hard-boiled murder mystery, a genre in which "there are certain mechanical requirements: ... you have to produce a dead body at some point, and you have to produce suspects, and then you have to produce the killer" (131). Within these parameters, though, there are many opportunities for innovation. One way Nava defies expectations about the frequently homophobic hard-boiled genre is by drawing parallels between his novels' central murder mysteries and the secondary narratives in which Henry openly confronts what Drewey Wayne Gunn calls "the ultimate mystery every gay man must face at some point in his life: his difference from his family and the general society into which he has been born" (3-4). Indeed, Henry's criminal investigations frequently lead him to reflect on the nature of his homosexual desire and gay subjectivity.

This essay examines how aspects of a criminal case parallel matters concerning homosexuality in the final Henry Rios mystery, Rag and Bone (2001). (2) Taking my cue from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's analysis of the homosexual closet in Epistemology of the Closet (1990), I explore how Nava's novel addresses issues of secrecy and disclosure pertaining to how gay and bisexual Chicanos negotiate the closet, and to how a murder witness divulges information about the crime. Just as men who experience homosexual desire must constantly decide to conceal or reveal their sexuality in varying social situations, the witness makes judgments about whether to disclose information about the murder to different individuals. In both cases, the characters' choices about how to manage privileged information--and even their personal agency to make such decisions in the first place--are intimately bound in a web of power relations shaped by hierarchies of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and sexuality.

Sedgwick's theoretical observations about the closet open new possibilities for critical work on the Henry Rios mysteries. Until now, scholars have situated Nava's novels in the context of fiction written by gay Chicanos, gay detective fiction, and Chicano detective fiction? Studies tend to discuss the series as a whole and point out recurrent themes such as Henry's doubly marginalized social status as "an ethnic minority in a predominately Anglo culture, and as a gay person in a mainly heterosexual society" (Lopez 77); his struggles with homophobia and the AIDS epidemic; and his effort to form a nontraditional family with another man. (4) Gunn also identifies the closet and coming out as important themes, noting that "[c]oming out of the safety of the closet is another terror treated throughout the series" (50). Although several other critics mention moments of sexual self-identification in Nava's series, they fail to consider the relationship between the epistemological issues raised on the one hand by an individual's revelation of his or her homosexual desire and on the other by the search for knowledge that forms the basis of the criminal investigation in any conventional murder mystery? An examination of the principal arguments in Epistemology of the Closet constitutes the first step toward correcting this oversight.

According to Sedgwick, Western cultures structure meaning around a series of binary oppositions, some of which are "master terms" that leave their traces on other, seemingly unrelated pairs (11). …