Boystown 5: Murder Book

Author: Marshall Thornton
Cover Artist: Deana C. Jamroz
Publisher: MLR Press
Genre: Mystery
Length: 56,000 words
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

A Guest Review by Lloyd A. Meeker

Review Summary: A skillfully crafted, engaging mystery in the classic PI style set in 1982 — and more.


In the fifth book of the award-winning Boystown mystery series, it’s fall 1982 and Chicago is gripped by panic after five people die from poisoned Tylenol capsules. Amid the chaos, the Bughouse Slasher takes his seventh victim, this time striking close to private investigator Nick Nowak. With the Chicago Police Department stretched to its limit, Nick takes matters into his own hands. But what will he do with the Bughouse Slasher once he finds him?


In 1982 Chicago, the Tylenol poisonings have dominated the headlines and consume Police Department resources.

Nick Nowak is a PI, working on a bankruptcy fraud case when his lover Bert Harker is murdered. Bert is a Chicago PD detective on disability leave. He’s sick–he has the disease recently named AIDS and knows he’ll die soon. While on active duty Harker, along with his partner Frank Connors, had been investigating the murder of six men at the hand of a serial killer dubbed the Bughouse Slasher, who has anal sex with his victims in the back of his van, then slits their throats as he pulls out.

Sick as he is, Bert can’t let go of the investigation. Connors supplies him with all the information the Chicago PD collects, and Harker compiles it into a highly organized “murder book”, along with notes of his own investigative activity. As he pursues his informal investigation, Bert Harker becomes the Bughouse Slasher’s seventh victim.

With captivating elegance and skill, author Marshall Thornton sets all this up in the first ten pages. The story takes off and never slows down. It’s an engaging classic PI tale with strong characters, a fascinating plot woven from several different threads, plenty of sleuthing, and outstanding writing.

Among the lively and well-orchestrated cast of characters are:

Bert Harker’s Czech mother, who hates Nick and blames him for her son’s depravity and by inference, his illness. She insists that her son’s police-hero funeral not be tainted by acknowledging Nick’s relationship with Bert, and in a heart-wrenching scene makes him sit persona non grata at the back of the chapel. Yet she is fully human, with hopes, fears and ambitions that may well surprise the reader as they did me.

Christian Baylor, a young, pretty, not-too-bright kid with unrealistic hopes of becoming a journalist for Chicago magazine. Christian cultivates his relationship with Harker as a way of getting access to the Bughouse Slasher story. Nowak suspects the relationship might have become romantic or perhaps even sexual.

Thornton paints Christian as an enigmatic and rather tragic figure, sincere, illogical and sexually careless, a prime candidate for the spreading plague. A poignant twist is that Christian is convinced that Harker, knowing that he would die soon, wanted him to become Nowak’s lover after Harker died. Nowak, on the other hand, is under no such impression.

And of course the Bughouse Slasher is a suitably horrifying villain — a clever and evasive, psychotic and frightening killer.

After Bert is found murdered, Connors warns Nick that the police will have to search the apartment that Nick and Bert shared, but gives Nick enough time to copy the binder of documents and information which Bert wasn’t supposed to have in the first place. Connors and Nick continue their cautious collaboration, first out of mutual respect for Bert, and gradually also for each other as well.

I indicated earlier that this book was more than a finely-crafted and satisfying PI mystery. It is also a haunting study in grief, and the suffocating paralysis of loss. Nowak struggles to remain functional while his search for the killer becomes an homage to his fallen lover. In fact, the investigation becomes a nostalgic last partnership between Nowak and Harker, for Harker has left behind clues that he knows only Nowak will see and understand.

Nowak’s character is compelling. Relentless in his pursuit of the killer, occasionally cruel in his grief and smoldering anger, and borderline dysfunctional, he staggers through the investigation like a wounded boar, only half in immediate reality, as dangerous to himself as he is to others.

I guess you can tell that I’m a fan of Thornton’s work. I think he’s got his hands completely around the PI genre, and brings the story to multi-dimensional life with originality, wit, and skill. Highly recommended!


  • I agree wholeheartedly with this review. I’m so impressed by Marshall Thornton’s writing and storytelling skills. I just recently became a fan. I’ve been fascinated by the Nick Nowak series for a number of reasons, one of which is because I was around for that pre-AIDS, pre-Internet, pre-cell phone time in our recent history. People thought nothing of being openly homophobic in those days. Thank God the times are changing.

    • You raise a strong point, Brit — those of us who lived through those times can both appreciate stories like this as well as write them in ways that are, I think, unique to first-hand POV.

      Sadly, some people still think nothing of being openly homophobic, but their numbers shrink steadily. The times really are changing. 😎 It seems like we’re on the side of history on this one.

  • ***The writing skills of this author show that there is more than just romance in the m/m genre.***

    Right on Karin! I always champion talented and daring authors who don’t go down the same formulaic road. I added Mr. Thornton to my Writers-Who-Really-WRITE list months ago. :bravo:

  • Loyd

    I’m a fan of this writer, having read the first three books, loved them and looking forward to book no. 4. You captured Nowak’s essence so clearly and cleverly in your review so that I felt as if I were in the story rather than reading it. Marshall Thornton is a gem of a writer and you showed us why his books are so highly regarded. Thank you so much. No. 5 is next on my list.

  • I have just finished Boystown 4 und No 5 is waiting on my Kindle.
    The first book in this series was great, the next two were good, and the fourth was breathtaking. After reading your review I think Murder Book must be even better.
    For me it is so important how a book is written. The writing skills of this author show that there is more than just romance in the m/m genre.

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