Title: This Rough Magic (A Shot in the Dark #1)
Author: Josh Lanyon
Cover Artist: April Martinez
Publisher: JustJoshin Publishing
Buy link: Amazon.com (Second Edition)
Genre: Mystery, historical fiction (1930s)
Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5
A dueling guest review by Leslie
In a nutshell: Vintage Lanyon: what Josh does best. A clever mystery with lovely writing and a pair of very likeable protagonists.
Wealthy San Francisco playboy Brett Sheridan thinks he knows the score when he hires tough guy private eye Neil Patrick Rafferty to find a priceless stolen folio of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Brett’s convinced his partner-in-crime sister is behind the theft—a theft that’s liable to bring more scandal to their eccentric family, and cost Brett his marriage to society heiress Juliet Lennox. What Brett doesn’t count on is the instant and powerful attraction that flares between him and Rafferty.
Once before, Brett took a chance on loving a man, only to find himself betrayed and broken. This time around there’s too much at risk. But as the Bard himself would say, Journey’s end in lovers meeting.
Sometimes you just want to put on your comfiest tee-shirt and well-worn flannel pants, curl up on the couch with a really good book and immerse yourself in the story. A story that is as cozy as the shirt and pants. Josh Lanyon does that for me and This Rough Magic, his latest, was a really comfy read. I loved it!
Josh covers some familiar territory in this story: a California setting (San Francisco, beautifully described); a clever mystery; a rare and valuable literary manuscript (The Tempest by Shakespeare); signature flourishes including martinis and a funny animal (this time, a monkey) but most importantly, the main characters. Two gay men, one who knows he is and is okay with it (but realizes the need to be discreet and private) and the other who knows he is but wishes he wasn’t. Can we say Adrien and Jake, anyone? Nathan and Mathew? In this case it’s Neil Patrick Rafferty, former cop turned PI and Brett Sheridan, son of the very high-society Sheridans and the man on whom all his family’s hopes are pinned.
The story takes place in the 1930s at a time when “society” was perhaps a bit more important than it is today. At least it is very important to the Sheridans, a family that is adverse to scandal but hiding lots of scandalous secrets, including the fact that they’re broke. It’s fallen to Brett to save the family fortunes and honor. He’s accomplished the former in dribs and drabs by surreptitiously selling off precious family artifacts and his own polo ponies but he’s come to realize the only way he’ll truly secure the family fortune—and honor—is to marry a wealthy young woman. In this case that woman is Juliet Lennox, nouveau riche heiress to a meatpacking fortune. It is a prospect that does not make Brett happy.
The story opens with Brett hiring Rafferty to locate and return a very valuable folio—The Tempest, by Shakespeare—that is owned by his father-in-law and stolen right under everybody’s noses during Brett and Juliet’s engagement party. Brett has suspicions that his sister might be involved, supposedly because she has recently taken up with a small-time crook, Harry Sader. Rafferty takes this all in, asks for and receives a hefty fee, and the mystery is afoot.
As I said above, there was a great deal of Lanyon familiarity in this story, with echoes of the the Adrien English mysteries as well as Snowball in Hell. Some might criticize the author for becoming formulaic; I, instead, see it as a strength. To me, there’s nothing wrong with being a reliable, dependable author, especially in the mystery genre. From the very first page when I cracked this open, I felt like I was settling down for a conversation with an old friend. As the story unfolded, Lanyon didn’t disappoint. I was completely engrossed, enjoying the evocative imagery and lovely writing all the way to the very last sentence.
As for the mystery? It was clever and fun and I didn’t figure it out until the very end—but then, I never do. The clues were there, though, for readers who are perhaps better detectives than me.
I really liked the protagonists, Brett and Rafferty (or Neil, as Brett eventually comes to think of him—another Lanyon trademark signaling a shift in their relationship). Brett is a young man who wants to do the right thing and keep everybody happy, often at the expense of his own feelings and needs. Rafferty is the “hardboiled detective” who turns out to be not all that hardboiled. In Brett’s words,
“There it was again, that unexpected and somehow terrifying gentleness. So much better, so much easier, if Neil had simply been the hardboiled tough he’d seemed at first glance, because this…”
Later, he thinks,
“He lifted his lashes and was surprised by an expression on Neil’s face that he knew Neil would not want him to see. He closed his eyes again, giving Neil time to rearrange his features into the usual rock formation.”
As with so many Lanyon couples, I wanted them to find a way to be together. That desire started from their very first meeting and wended its way through the book. Even more telling, I wished I could meet them—another after-effect I often experience with Josh’s characters! Maybe someday we’ll all get to party together…LOL.
My only minor quibble (aside from the cover, which does nothing for me, but I know that’s not Josh’s issue) is that this is the first of a proposed series (A Shot in the Dark, #1). As such, it does feel like there are a number of loose ends, threads that I am sure will be pulled through in future installments. Still, what’s up with Justine and her little black book? Kitty and Harry? Crazy Aunt Lenora? I realize that some of these plot elements were thrown in as red herrings to divert readers from figuring out who the perpetrator of the theft was; still, at the end, there were a couple of niggle questions in my mind about details that didn’t get quite sewn up.
But as I said, that’s a minor point. All in all, this was a wonderful book for a rainy Sunday afternoon, transporting me far away to another time and place. I love writers who can do that. For me, Josh has succeeded, once again