- Series Title: Boystown Mysteries
- Author: Marshall Thornton
- Publisher: Kenmore Books
- Book Length: Approx 200+ pages each book
- Genre: Gay, Mystery, Crime, Drama
- Reviewed by: Diane
- Posting Date: July 7, 2015
Guest Post: Marshall talks about writing the Boystown Series
One of the things a writer should think about when writing a mystery series is what it means to write a series. As an avid mystery reader myself, I’ve torn through a number of very successful series, which I’ve both enjoyed and learned from. Several things I’ve observed have had a significant effect on my own series.
Very often when a series comes from a major publisher there’s a lot of pressure that the books in the series are basically the same book again and again. Big publishers are extremely risk adverse. You may not notice that you’re reading the same book until you’ve read a few but eventually you begin to see that pattern. Things happen at exactly the same time. The closer the detective gets to finding the killer the more danger the detective is in until the end which always includes a violent confrontation. Things like that.
For me, one of the joys of being an independent writer is the freedom to experiment. With the Boystown Mysteries I’ve had the opportunity to take risks with both length and content. The early books are collections of chronological short stories or novellas, which by itself changes structure and content. The later books are complete novels but continue to take risks with their structure.
When I was writing Boystown 2, I began thinking about the ways writing short stories changed what I did structurally. I also wondered what I would be doing differently if and when I began writing the series as full-length novels. I noted that in many series there was a major threat to the main character at about the midpoint; someone beats them up or tries to kill them or hurts someone close to them. I wondered what it would be like to begin a story with that type of event. This was the kernel of an idea that became “Little Boy Boom” the first novella in Boystown 3. Nick’s car is blown up in the opening scene, leading Nick to spend the story looking for the bomber and effectively beginning the story in the middle.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that series can approach time in a glacial way, both in the actual amount of time that passes between books and in developing the characters’ personal lives. Sue Grafton’s alphabet series (which I like quite a lot) only covers three or four years over twenty-six books. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in her case I find it fascinating that what began as a contemporary series is now a nostalgia series, but my own personal taste is to move time along more quickly.
For instance, between Boystown 5 and Boystown 6 there’s a gap of about a year. There are a number of reasons I chose to do that. Most importantly, both books deal with grief. I think the beginning of the grieving process is interesting and the end of it is interesting, but what comes between can be very repetitive. I could have set two or even three books in 1983 but it didn’t make sense to me that there would be much movement in Nick’s emotional life. Additionally, with AIDS in the background I felt like I’d covered the beginning period and wanted to get to the mid-period when the virus was identified and safe sex began.
Which brings me to another difference between my series and many others, Nick’s life moves forward rather quickly. Many series I’ve read will take ten books before they bring characters together, one that comes to mind is juggling a romantic triangle that has been in play for more than twenty books. My personal taste is to allow the characters’ lives to develop and complete. I think too that in writing about the eighties and characters in their twenties and thirties it’s appropriate to have a lot happening in their personal lives. A lot happened to me during those years, it would feel wrong not to have a lot happening in the lives of my characters.
I wouldn’t say that the directions I’ve chosen for the Boystown Mysteries are better or worse than many of today’s big mystery series, and certainly a mainstream publisher would point out that they sell more books, the thing is, as an independent I need to offer something different. Certainly, writing a gay series is different since the majors won’t touch them, but I can’t see a reason to stop there. I have the freedom so why not take it?
These are character-driven tales/cases, each centering around a specific event or mystery, but also becoming gradually inter-related as the series progresses. Today’s blowjob in the men’s room at the local watering hole can show up later in a much altered capacity. In Book 1 you learn early on to keep the characters and events sorted, but the author makes it easy with straightforward storytelling and plots tight enough to make taking a breath problematic.
The overarching themes are multifaceted, chronicling how Chicago changed in the 80’s—politically, socially, economically. How people changed, how attitudes toward being gay in a time when homophobia took on the shades of abuse backed by a sympathetic infrastructure sadly mirroring current day in too many respects. But mostly, Boystown takes a good, hard look at “being gay” during the years before AIDS turned all our worlds upside down and inside out.
Nick is tough, in a Sam Spade, old-fashioned nourish way—a man who exists on a sliding scale of scruples, with a few hard targets that get pushed and pummeled in a world unfettered by contracts and safe words. What I adore about this character is how he grows, adjusts, suffers and rebounds, only to fall back into habit and the safety of independence.
The initial plots, aka mysteries, are relatively simple, without too many flourishes—just enough to keep you guessing and turning the page. But beware, by Book #4, the stakes get higher, the suspense palpable, the intricacies of the whodunits multi-layered, clever and quite often surprising as the twists and turns keep you hopping. Cases become embedded. The effect is much like tossing a stone into Lake Michigan on an uber-calm day and watching the ripples spread.
You get to observe the subtle changes in all the characters, major and minor, as the gay community responds to shifting circumstances. The lens is Nick Nowak. The setting is Chicago, re-imagined with incredible authenticity. I’ve seldom come across an author who truly understands the passage of time, the constraints of living in an urban environment that’s almost primitive by current standards, and the realities of men existing on the outskirts of acceptability.
Boystown, the series, is a vivid work of literary fiction. Brilliant in execution, alive with hope, fear, pathos, and despair, it also possesses a wry sense of humor that not only lightens the mood but also acts to highlight the absurdities of social conventions. Thornton pulls no punches. You will laugh, you will cry and you will scream at Nick to get a clue. When he does, though, it’s best not to relax your guard.
This series had several of the titles as finalists in the Lambda Awards. To me, Marshall Thornton and the entire Boystown series are hands-down winners in my book. This is a highly recommended read. It is also worthy of space on your physical bookshelf. And it’s rumored there’s a Book #8 on the way.
Sign me up.
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