A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
In Dangerous Ground a casino robbery finds government agents Taylor and Will playing a game of cat-and-mouse with remorseless killers in the wilderness of California’s High Sierras. Snowball in Hell introduces police detective Lt. Matthew Spain and reporter Nathan Doyle, men thrown together by murder. But, in post-WWII Los Angeles consequences of their attraction are serious, even for good guys. Lanyon fans take note: It’s around Matthew and Nathan that Lanyon builds his new mystery series. Writer Tim North assures his lover, homicide detective Jack Brady, that there’s little danger in researching a sensational Hollywood murder committed decades before either of them was born. But, with Cards on the Table, Tim discovers that he’s very, very wrong. This collection includes the bonus short story In Sunshine or In Shadow.
It is no secret that Josh is one of my favorite authors, period, no matter the genre, and while my reviews of his books may seem biased, they are not. He is that talented and his work is just that good. As usual, all of the stories in this collection are superbly written, skillfully-plotted with wonderfully fleshed-out characters and marvelous dialog. The romance aspects are realistic, the plots believable, and those with mystery elements leave you guessing.
I really appreciated the author’s notes that preceded each story as I like little tidbits that give insight into the work (such as how Cards on the Table was the prototype for the AE series, and how Dangerous Ground plays homage to The Professionals).
Please note that between Wave and me, we have already reviewed four of the nine books in the two volumes of collected novellas, so I will be linking to those reviews where applicable. Also, the majority of the stories were bundled in other works, such as the Partners in Crime series, and I have noted those.
Cards on the Table: 5 stars
This was originally included in the first Partners in Crime book, Boy Meets Body, and in my opinion, definitely the stronger of the two.
The story opens with our first-person narrator, Tim North, finding a potentially threatening tarot card attached to his front door. This may not seem particularly noteworthy, but Tim is writing a book on a fifty-year-old high-profile, unsolved Hollywood murder and the tarot plays a significant part. To get an outside opinion, he turns to Jack Brady, an LAPD detective in his apartment complex and a man who Tim dated briefly and with whom he spent one disastrous night. The conversation is awkward, but Jack is willing to look into it for him. When more dangerous things begin to happen to Tim, it becomes clear that someone doesn’t want him to write this book. As his research for the book — and the not-so-subtle warnings — continue, it quickly becomes obvious that he and Jack still have serious chemistry, leading them to consider trying to work through their issues with one another.
Josh is a master at penning realistic, flawed, vulnerable, fragile — physically and emotionally — characters and I found both protags sympathetic and likable. I thought Tim was a wonderful beta who is in the midst of adjusting his life to his new condition, which I suspected before the reveal (and if you really pay attention to the clues, you probably can, too). The adjustments are difficult for a man who, as the author’s notes suggest, is used to being in total control of his life. Aspects of that control are now gone and he must find different ways to do what he took for granted before. I also felt how torn he was over Jack — really wanting him, but not wanting to trust him with his heart.
I admit to adoring Jack, and he’s now one of my favorite cops in Josh’s pairings of civilian/cop couples. Tough yet vulnerable, I liked how obviously protective, caring and watchful he is of Tim, even in the six months they haven’t been together. I didn’t blame him for his reaction to Tim that night six months before, though admittedly if Tim had been honest up front, Jack may have handled it a tad better. But then, neither of them is perfect.
The secondary characters, many from Old Hollywood, were delightful and whodunit was a surprise. Quieter in tone than some of Josh’s other books with less humor and more reflection, I liked the change of pace.
One of the things I really like about Josh’s books is his attention and description to environmental detail:
The evening air was mild, filled with the hum of the pool generator and air conditioners. The lights were on in the pool, the solar-powered tiki torches flickering in the twilight. I could smell the jasmine in the air — and a hint of tobacco smoke.
I could feel as if I was there. He also has lovely prose for the more…graphic of content:
…I felt surrender well up and flow through him — the white flag spilling into my mouth.
My only niggle in this story is the ending. Based on the issues these two have and have had with each other (they just didn’t go away), I foresaw a tentative HFN, and thus I was surprised at both the length of the “let’s try being together” scene (it seemed quick) and the last line seemed a teensy bit…hokey…to me. I’ll leave it at that.
Dangerous Ground: 5 stars
“Special Agents for the Department of Diplomatic Security, Taylor MacAllister and Will Brandt have been partners and best friends for three years, but everything changed the night Taylor admitted the truth about his feelings for Will. And when Taylor was shot a few hours later, Will felt his reluctance to get involved was vindicated. For Will, the team and the friendship have to come first — despite the fact that he hasn’t failed to notice just how…hot Taylor is”.
In Sunshine or In Shadow: 5 stars
This is a bonus short in the collection, and not available anywhere else (please correct me if I’m wrong). This is a brief review for a brief story.
Partnered together for five years in LAPD’s Homicide department, Detectives Keiran Quinn and Rick Monaghan are best friends as well as one-time lovers. Having decided that being a couple wasn’t working out, the two have switched back to partners/friends with some ease and are much happier for it. Or so Rick thinks. When Keir takes an unexpected vacation to Ireland on the heels of revealing some surprising news that affects both of them, Rick must makes some decisions about what he really wants.
I. Loved. This. Story. What a little gem at 21 pages! It is very intimate as opposed to sexual, and for the length, it packs tons of character development into a bit of plot. It’s an example of how two people so close can feel differently about the same situation. I loved how our heroes are with each other, even when things are so very tense and there are unresolved issues between them.
On one hand, I would love to see more of these two; on the other, I am tempted to say that the story is perfect as is and more would ruin it. This is just one of those stories that leaves you with a smile on your face.
Snowball in Hell is one of Josh’s best stories. Ever. And I waited, stupid me, because I wasn’t sure I was interested in reading a book set in WWII era Los Angeles. Like I said, stupid, stupid me. I have now read SIH four times since it was released as a standalone (as opposed to part of Partners In Crime 2: I’ll Be Dead for Christmas). It is also what will be book one of a series starring Matt and Nathan. Did I happen to mention how stupid I was?
It’s 1943. Called to an early morning discovery of a body in the Brea Tar Pits, LAPD Homicide Lieutenant Mathew Spain meets Nathan Doyle, a journalist just back from the war who is reporting on the murder. Immediately drawn to and fascinated by Nathan, Matt begins the investigation only to find Nathan to be at the center of it no matter which way he turns. As Matt probes further, it becomes clear to him that Nathan has secrets, the biggest one playing out in parks under banana trees after dark, which makes Nathan even more interesting to him. The murder victim, the son of a wealthy, prominent family and one that had recently been kidnapped for ransom, has made quite a few enemies and the list of suspects is a large one — including, and perhaps most noteworthy, Nathan.
Told in third-person POV from both protags, everything about this book is fabulous. From the engaging mystery to an atypical romance that is perfectly imperfect to sympathetic and likeable characters to the realistic atmosphere to the sparsely-written prose to the fast pace, this is a story that is not to be missed.
Josh has wonderful world building in SIH and the noir atmosphere sucks you in and doesn’t let go until the very HFN ending. Reminiscent of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, the Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, this is his homage to film noir, and it definitely shows. The mood, setting and details are perfect; I felt as if I was transported back sixty-some years where words like “dapper,” and “dame,” and “sister,” and “shakedown” were popular, and rationing, blackouts, stamp coupons, victory gardens were the norm. There is an additional atmospheric contrast between the Christmas season, the rain that doesn’t seem to want to stop, and the war, which lends an interesting feeling of people doing the best they could to celebrate under the circumstances.
Matt and Nathan are heart-wrenching, painful and beautiful protags, especially Nathan, who is a deliciously complex, tortured, broken hero. A wounded war correspondent recently back from travelling with the British Eighth Army in North Africa, Nathan has gotten himself a job with a local newspaper. But he has this other side of his life that has him meeting strangers in bars and having quick trysts in the park under cover that could get him at the very least arrested. He is self-loathing, terribly lonely, and so desperate for male human touch and love that he puts himself in possibly dangerous situations just to get a fix, something that sates the hunger for just a few hours.
The hungry, restless feeling was on him again. For a few months in the hospital he’d hoped — prayed — he was cured, but it was worse since he’d returned to Los Angeles. Much worse. Need like a fever burning him up, burning up his inhibitions, his common sense, his instinct for self-preservation. Ironically, the war had kept him relatively sane, reasonably steady. But now he was back to where he’d started.
Matt, on the other hand, is more grounded and much more accepting of and comfortable with of himself and his feelings. Also a wounded veteran, he was promoted to Lieutenant upon his return to the States from Guadalcanal. Unfortunately, he also came home to a dying wife, a woman who he loved dearly and with whom he would have probably shared the rest of his life without looking back at the men he slept with on and off while away at war. Now widowed, he has nothing to hold him back when he feels the strong attraction to Nathan, and although he can’t imagine how they could work it, he has many fewer issues around it than Nathan. But he is also very unhappy with Nathan’s habit of picking up tricks, and he develops his own habit of following Nathan around, leading himself to wonder who the “unhealthy, neurotic one” is: Nathan, who engages in dangerous, self-destructive behavior, or Matt who follows him around while he does it?
There are a lot of secondary characters here and you need to pay attention through the rapid-fire pace at times to keep track of who is whom. The victim’s family, friends and associates; Tara Renee, the female reporter; Jonsey, Matt’s partner; Nathan’s mother; club owners and their hired staff, all making for a colorful collection of cast members and many of whom are possible suspects. The mystery element kept me engrossed, but it’s the romance between Matt and Nathan that kept me immersed in the story. I kept rooting for them through all of the roadblocks Nathan and society threw at them. We are left with an HFN, and as part of a new series, I am good with that. Actually, with these two, I’m not sure there is an HEA for them, but Josh is such a talented author that if there is one, he’ll bring to us.
One negative: especially toward the end there were several, annoying editing errors that took me out of the story, which I have to admit is unfortunately kinda a trend with MLR.
This is a collection of stories not to be missed. Lovers of romance, mystery, and gay fiction all have something to look forward to here from this master of the genre. Now on to Collected Novellas Volume 2!