Today I am so pleased to welcome Ulysses Grant Dietz to Joyfully Jay. Ulysses is here to help Marshall Thornton celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Boystown Mystery series by sharing some thoughts with us about the books. Please join me in giving him a big welcome!
The first Boystown book I purchased was actually the second in the series – a second trio of mystery novellas featuring former Chicago cop Nick Nowak. This was back in May of 2011. I bought this second volume because Marshall Thornton had given me the first Boystown trio in exchange for my feedback. I can’t remember how he got my name, or why he thought my opinion mattered, or in fact what feedback I gave him; but I read through Boystown: Three Nick Nowak Mysteries (AKA Boystown 1), and I was impressed. And disturbed. And hooked.
For the life of me, I can’t find a review that I wrote, but I know I wrote back to Thornton and told him his books were good. Why the hell he cared, I can’t imagine. Then again, I did read the next two volumes in quick succession, and every book in the series thereafter, so there’s that.
Right from the beginning there were things about the Boystown stories that bothered me. First, Nick Nowak himself was kind of an asshole: a macho Polish ex-cop, closeted until forced out, sexually indiscriminate, moody and unemotional. As one early negative review (not mine) put it: Nick was the kind of gay man I tried to avoid. Plus, the setting was the early 1980s, a period I remember well because it was at the start of my own career. It was also the time when AIDS made its first insidious, confusing appearance, and began to undermine the lives of gay men all across America, but especially in the big urban enclaves in which gay men had finally begun to feel safe. Right away I sort of anticipated where Nick’s life was going to take him, and I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to go along for the ride.
Nick grew on me, however. Through Thornton’s skilled, terse, neo-noir prose, I began to see the wounded, bullied, profoundly driven young man, looking for justice in a world that had kicked him pretty hard. Honestly, it was a hard world to read about – to relive from someone else’s perspective. Reading Thornton’s books made me painfully aware of how I’d sort of blocked out the eighties, pushed them to the back of my mind. Nick’s struggles resonated with me, not because I’d struggled and suffered the same way, but because I hadn’t. I was lucky. Nick wasn’t.
Then in Boystown 6: From the Ashes, I noted the emergence of a wry humor that had begun to infuse Nick’s awareness. After a lot of darkness – a darkness that wasn’t letting up – Nick had developed a perspective on his work and his life that didn’t necessarily make him happy, but allowed him to feel. The emotionally barricaded guy in those first books began to crumble, allowing us to see his compassion and his emotional generosity.
I have always tracked Nick’s stories through three intertwined threads – the long arcs that can cover several books; the specific mysteries within each separate volume; and his personal timeline. Very clearly, for me, it is the last one that keeps me the most engaged. There are always crimes to be solved, always unscrupulous people to punish, spoiled rich bastards to knock down a peg. Nick has a very keen sense of right and wrong, but knows that he can’t necessarily be judge and jury when he needs to pay the bills. This moral ambivalence kept me anxious until, by the seventh book or so, it began to be clear (to me at least) that Nick’s entire moral compass had solidified. Instead of an angry man flailing at the world, he was a wounded man determined to make the world better for as long as he was able. That vulnerable uncertainty gave Nick a quietly heroic aspect – something new and important.
From the very start, Nick is never alone in these books. He is always surrounded by other people who impinge upon his life, for better or worse. Some of them are almost comic, some bittersweet, some simply heartbreaking. These characters populate the successive books and offer up multiple lenses through which the reader sees Nick’s evolution – a onetime boyfriend dying of AIDS, a discarded teenager thriving in a friend’s apartment, a prickly old woman gradually coming to rely on him, a glamorous socialite who sees all of Nick’s good points and offers encouragement. Despite the sadness and defeat, Nick ultimately emerges as the hub of a little community of gay men. He is self-aware, sure of his own essential goodness, and unfailing in his wish to do the right thing. He still feels despair, but he doesn’t let it stop him.
By the end of the latest chapter in Nick Nowak’s saga, two things stood out for me. First, I really loved Nick Nowak. He felt like a friend, someone I admired and cared about. Secondly, I knew that this series had taken its rightful place as an historic moment in the evolution of gay detective fiction (and thereby detective fiction in general). Already by book Boystown 7: Bloodlines I was feeling that these books were important – because they had become important to me. The Boystown series is a landmark, just as Joseph Hansen’s Brandstetter mysteries were a landmark thirty years ago.
Ten years in, Marshall Thornton isn’t done with Nick Nowak, and neither am I.
Ulysses Grant Dietz grew up in Syracuse, New York, where his Leave it to Beaver life was enlivened by his fascination with vampires, from Bela Lugosi to Barnabas Collins. He studied French at Yale, and was trained to be a museum curator at the University of Delaware. A curator for thirty-eight years before he retired, Ulysses has never stopped writing fiction for the sheer pleasure of it. He created the character of Desmond Beckwith in 1988 as his personal response to Anne Rice’s landmark novels. Alyson Books released his first novel, Desmond, in 1998. Vampire in Suburbia, his second novel, appeared in 2012.
Ulysses lives in suburban New Jersey with his husband of 44 years and their two grown children. By the way, the name Ulysses was not his parents’ idea of a joke: he is a great-great grandson of Ulysses S. Grant, and his mother, Julia, was the President’s last living great-grandchild. Every year on April 27 he gives a speech at Grant’s Tomb in New York City.