A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
One Sentence Review: A fascinating look at an alcoholic, closeted cop who is trying to solve a case of a murdered, wealthy attorney.
Detective Michael Weiss has enough to deal with. Between being part of a dysfunctional police department and having a vain and demanding lover who Michael suspects is only using him for personal gain, it’s all Michael can do to keep himself sane. When the body of Craig Davies, a wealthy defense lawyer, is found on former television star Sam Christiansen’s front lawn, Michael knows that everyone—his bosses, his partner at the police department, and Brian, his lover—will be looking to him for answers.
Despite a quick solution that results in a dead suspect, the case turns out to be much more complex than it first appears. Michael uncovers a twisted web of relationships, a web that inexorably draws him into a passionate tangle of love and greed where more and more people are turning up dead. It’s critical that Michael find justice for Sam as their attraction grows… but it will take a back seat to keeping them both alive.
Billionaire’s Row is the first published novel by new author Sullivan Wheeler. While I really liked some aspects of the book, I had a fairly big issue with another of this engrossing, well-written, complex, at-times suspenseful police procedural/murder mystery, a story that was, for me anyway, as much a statement of the disparity between the obscenely wealthy and the rest of us as the whodunit.
Michael, our third-person narrator, is a lonely, closeted, alcoholic detective on the Ponte Bonita, Florida, Police Department. Called to an early morning murder scene by his partner Andy, he can barely function between the hangover and lack of sleep he got because he was smexxin it up with on-again, off-again lover, television journalist Brian. He always says he’s not going to get involved with Brian again, but he often wakes up with a hangover, Brian in his bed, and little memory of how they both got there. Carefully making his way to the scene on what is termed Billionaire’s Row (because of who can afford the houses), he arrives to find the victim, successful defense attorney Craig Davies, dead on the property of formerly-relevant and relatively famous television actor Sam, who is abroad working. As they investigate, it becomes clear to Michael that their main suspect isn’t who did it, but no one wants to hear that. In the meantime, Sam returns home and even though he is a suspect, sparks fly between the two closeted men. After the case “officially” closes, new evidence shows up and Michael, on the sly and with some help from unexpected sources, continues the investigation, which becomes more complicated as the dead bodies begin to pile up. In the meantime, he and Sam begin to see each other. As their relationship becomes deeper, the danger intensifies as the killer sets their sights on the couple.
What I liked:
I thought of this story as Michael’s journey. I was fascinated with him, a flawed hero who is used by many, and his ability to function as an alcoholic. Maybe a better way to look at him is functionally dysfunctional? I rarely drink and I don’t know any alcoholics, so I can’t speak to the authenticity of his character (and his feelings and actions), but it seemed realistic to me. Disillusioned, jaded and apathetic, he spends much of the story acting superficially with everyone around him and feeling confused and conflicted about many things. Here is a description of him from the story:
A lonely, mostly closeted cop (he’d come out to only a handful of people in his life); a thirty-two-year-old man deeply afraid of being outed and equally afraid of dying alone; someone with a taste for liquor, someone for whom alcohol was akin to a truth serum.
But like I said, I felt there is a journey here, so there are subtle changes in him throughout the story. For example, he’s too drunk to really care about the case in the beginning, but was the one who latched onto the probable “wrong guy” thing and then took a relatively vested interest. He seems to wake up some about his alcoholism, and because of his relationship with Sam, he begins to look at how much he is drinking and stops before the sloppy drunk phase. He has mixed feelings (mostly indifferent) about his occasional relationship with Brian, but is almost devastated when occurrences later in the book bring it to an end.
I thought the fairly large cast overall (with a few exceptions, see more below) was well-drawn and three-dimensional. Even “sexual omnivore” Craig, the dead guy, came across as fully-fleshed. I loved his budding relationship with fellow detective Sarah, who though I liked very much as a character, unfortunately is written as a stereotypical lesbian in appearance and mannerism.
As I said above, there is quite a lot of commentary on the differences between the very wealthy (who live on Billionaire’s Row) and the majority of the rest of us. Michael thinks and talks about these differences as he becomes both more involved with the case and the relationships he fosters with those with whom he comes in contact. There is a scene where he is invited to a charity dinner and what he experiences and witnesses there speaks volumes to this. Another is the description of what one of the victim’s ex-wives, who is also an alcoholic, drinks:
The bottles were about $30 each, and Michael was startled to realize that, for a woman like Caroline, this was the kind of wine to get drunk on, not the $6-a-bottle stuff or the $4 sixpack of some kind of just-barely beer. He was slightly ashamed to realize that this was the most tangible example of real wealth he had seen. It wasn’t the Lexuses or the Bentleys; it was the $30 swill.
Mystery element was complex enough to keep my interest, and almost everyone Michael comes in contact with was a suspect. Though I vaguely suspected the reveal fairly early on, I didn’t know the details and enjoyed watching it play out. And the bad guy was a delicious psycho predator who I actually enjoyed paying attention to as I re-read the book a second time for this review (kinda like watching Sixth Sense after you know that Bruce Willis is dead all along).
What didn’t work for me:
Though other readers may feel differently, the romance element of the story was underdeveloped, and I have mixed feelings about even calling this a romance. In the end I felt like Michael had more chemistry and emotion with his booze than with the people around him. Maybe part of this is because Michael is an alcoholic and has dulled senses and emotions (which does come across)? I don’t know. I felt no chemistry between Michael and the two characters with whom he has relations during the book, although if I had to pick one, I’d say that the relationship between Michael and Brian felt more real, more substantial than the one he had with Sam — even though Michael would say otherwise. In fact, out of all of the characters, I thought I got to know Sam the least, and in some ways, he was just background noise or scenery for me. There is a comment Sam makes toward the end that, for me, came almost out of nowhere:
“It’s not just you anymore,” Sam said. “We’re supposed to be sort of a team now, aren’t we?”
I felt like I missed them really being a couple and was a little surprised by this. There is some telling and a little showing about the time they spent together, but I never really felt that Michael was committed to a relationship with Sam — or with anyone. I’m not even sure Michael is capable of being in a real relationship with anything other than alcohol — not with his family and we see no friends. Maybe his work colleagues? I don’t know. In saying all of this, though, the rest of the story makes up for this admittedly big niggle, so I found myself rating it higher than I normally would have otherwise.
If you’re in the mood for a good murder mystery with a flawed hero, and can overlook what I think is a weak romance, then I recommend you picking up Billionaire’s Row. I will be looking forward to more from this author.