This Rough Magic (A Shot in the Dark #1)

Title: This Rough Magic
Author: Josh Lanyon
Cover Artist: April Martinez
Publisher: JustJoshin
Buy link: Amazon.com (Second Edition)
Genre: Historical M/M ’30s, Mystery
Length: Novel/45K words
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

A dueling guest review by Jeff Pearce

Review Summary: An intriguing debut for a series that could use better characterization and bolder departure from the noir genre’s stock attributes.

THE BLURB:

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.

THE REVIEW:

I was cleaning my .45 Smith & Wesson to a buff shine when Wave asked me to do this review. She walked into my office, an explosion of high heels and lipstick. Her hips waved a happy hello…

Well, no, she didn’t, but the above (half ripped off from Mickey Spillaine) sort of sums up the challenge of writing anything in a gay noir vein. Even casual lines can push a sincere work into pastiche. All those slanted fedoras on the heads of tough guy private dicks and mobsters. And Josh Lanyon has set himself a very high bar indeed, billing This Rough Magic as the first book in a “new lightly comic mystery series set in 1930s San Francisco” which is his take on The Thin Man films.

So to review a short novel like this means addressing two separate issues. One, does it do what it sets out to do, i.e. live up to the spirit of the mysteries it’s emulating? And Two, is it an enjoyable read for its own sake?

I don’t how many readers give a damn about Issue One. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. I’m a fan of the Thin Man films, hardboiled detectives and everything 1930s, so to me, it’s an incredibly cool concept that prompted me to rush out to read his novel. And if Josh Lanyon is going to bill his work in that lofty company, we should explore the question.

First, for those who don’t know the Thin Man films, let alone the original novel, they’re great fun. Dashiell Hammett made a departure from his Sam Spade and Continental Op thrillers for a more lighthearted mystery featuring Nick and Nora Charles. Nick is a retired PI who’s clever and drinks. Nora’s a wealthy socialite—who also drinks, though not nearly as much as Nick. The films were huge successes because of the great chemistry and witty dialogue given to William Powell and Myrna Loy, and every wisecracking adventure couple from Hart to Hart to Mr. and Mrs. Smith owes to this inspiration.

So This Rough Magic and its resulting books will all hinge on the relationship between Lanyon’s gay sleuths stepping in for the husband and wife roles.

Alas, the two heroes show a lot of potential, but they’re not quite focussed in their debut. Brett Sheridan is likeable enough as the wealthy playboy closet case, and we can see he’s got that endearing streak of quiet courage that will make him invaluable to his more experienced private eye lover. Rafferty is more of the problem and a puzzle. Lanyon seems to have modelled him too closely on the typical hardboiled detective prototype than the witty, semi-retired Nick Charles. Like the fedora-wearing cliché, he’s got rough features and he drinks; it’s hardly a surprise to learn he’s Irish or that he grew up in an orphanage. Even when Rafferty casually spouts a bit of triva on how deer attack more humans than bears, explaining, “I like to read…. I’m a naturally curious fellow,” this sounds like vintage Philip Marlowe, brooding over his chessboard problems.

The over-faithfulness, for lack of a better way to put it, carries over into the storytelling with mixed results. Early on, when we follow Brett, the narrative is either neutral or sounds like F. Scott Fitzgerald dashing off a quick family tableau scene for The Saturday Evening Post. When we follow Rafferty, we often shift into Raymond Chandler gear. Sometimes it’s as smartass brilliant as anything Chandler could tap out. For instance: “After a calculated interval, a butler who looked like a close relative of Bela Lugosi came to the door and inquired, in a high-hat British accent, what Rafferty required. Rafferty required an audience with that man of affairs, William Lennox. Dracula regretted that Mr. Lennox was not available.”

This is great stuff, but the pity is that all the cleverness is in the narrative when what we’ve been sold is the idea of a gay Nick and Nora—sorry, Nick and Nick. Where’s the clever repartee? The first sparkle in any banter between them pops up in the last third of the book when a drunken Brett is questioning Rafferty:

“You’re a foundling?”
“I was. Technically, I think I’m too old now days.”

More moments like this, please. If it sounds like asking too much, consider that for a master storyteller like Lanyon, after a decade of successful m/m fiction, we have to move the goal posts. There are some genuine flashes of storytelling brilliance, and he’s at his best when he almost completely forgets the time period. Writing anything set in a different era is hard—you have to drop your reader into the decade without constantly drawing undue attention to it, which can paradoxically yank your reader right out. The problem is that even the 1930s weren’t like the 1930s, certainly not the machine-gun toting, quaint slang version that’s been recycled down to us through movies and TV shows until it’s a shadow of itself.

Lanyon is at his best when he practices restraint. A clearly well researched Coca-Cola ad dings the right bell, but when high society playboys use a term like ‘gat’ (which no one in the decade ever really used anyway), ehhhhh…. There’s the sound of tin. Later, an Asian character is referred to as “The Oriental.” I get that this is for authenticity of voice, and I’m no fan of political correctness, but there are times when it would be good to sacrifice the verisimilitude for more elegant, modern phrasing.

So Lanyon has to decide whether he wants his series to conjure up our cliché ideas of the hardboiled detectives of fiction or break new ground to plant his characters in richer, more authentic and interesting soil. For instance, his two lovers exist in a kind of vacuum of loneliness, as if they’re the only two gay guys in Frisco, and no doubt, real homosexuals back then probably often felt like that. But wouldn’t it be great for Lanyon to explore the noirish queer subculture that must have slowly percolated in the city with all its potential for blackmail schemes and double-crosses?

True, just because it’s m/m romance doesn’t mean the plot has to focus on gay issues. But a stolen Shakespeare folio, while fun, was a plot we could expect from any detective story, and as mentioned earlier, there’s hardly any fun dialogue. The tone is closer to sipped Scotch in a dive bar than bubbly champagne at a high society party (where the sleuthing Charles couple would go). With that kind of dark and lonely tone, let’s change out of the tuxedo altogether and hit the dark alleys.

Again, how much any of this matters to the reader depends on whether they’ve picked up the novel based on his pitch over the era or just to have a fun read with no expectations. Is it a fun read? Definitely, even with the sketchy characters. Lanyon’s many die-hard fans who are on auto-buy won’t be disappointed. But for the rest of us, it’s somewhat annoying that key suspects are “off screen” for so long, only to be reintroduced pages and pages later when they’re summoned for the solution. Brett and Rafferty prove to be equally clever, which bodes well for their future cases. Do we give a damn about who stole the Shakespeare folio? Not really—and it’s just as well. There’s a great story of how the moviemakers for The Big Sleep in 1939, weighed down by the twisting, complicated plot, realized that one murder in the novel didn’t make any sense and cabled Raymond Chandler to ask who killed that particular guy. Chandler cabled back something like, “I have no idea.”

The case is less important than our heroes, and while Josh Lanyon hasn’t given us a new Nick and Nick Charles yet, he might give us a great gay Marlowe and sidekick in book two and three. If he doesn’t quite pull it off, they’ll still be fun reads, and he should be commended for trying.

So don’t sweat this review, buddy. Take your finger off the trigger of that .45 and have a drink. Just forget it, pal. It’s Chinatown.

Recommended

Author

Jeff Pearce is the author of Dragon Streets from Dreamspinner Press and Buddha on the Road from Gallivant Books.

33 comments

  • Very well thought out review Jeff. You bring up several interesting points that would probably not occur to the average reader (like me). I definitely fall into the group that simply enjoyed the story and Josh’s writing, and look forward to the next book in the series. Though I do think that after reading your review I’ll be more conscious of your points when I read the next installment. Thanks Jeff!

    Reply
  • Hi Jeff!

    Thanks for the amusing and interesting review! I loved the picture of Wave “a la noir” 😆

    My education in sadly lacking in knowledge of vintage films. You’ve reminded me how entertaining they are. I haven’t been inspired by resent DVD releases so I think I will research these and give them a try.

    Thanks for contributing! I have downloaded several samples of your books just know so I will give them a try this weekend!!
    :bravo:

    Reply
    • Hi, Reggie!

      You’ve downloaded samples of MY books to give ’em a try? Very nice, thank you. You are now officially my new best friend lol. :bananadancer:

      Yeah, Wave a la noir. Well, you know what she’s like, always going down dark alleys in that trench coat of hers. 😆

      J

      Reply
    • Reggie
      I loved and reviewed Jeff’s first M/M book Dragon Streets which was an incredible ride. I would definitely recommend it.

      PS He took a lot of liberties with me — I’ll kill him for that. 🙂

      Reply
  • Thanks for the interesting review Jeff.
    I really enjoyed this one and look forward to more in the series. Several times while reading I actually said out loud (to myself, seeing as I was alone 😀 )”man I love Josh’s writing”. While I’ve done my share of launching into long analysis of a story here and there, I don’t usually open a book with pre-conceived expectations other than to be entertained, possibly learn something, and hopefully be moved emotionally. The only exception perhaps is that a favorite author will “deliver” and for me the author did with this one.

    Reply
  • Very interesting review of Josh Lanyon’s work. I enjoyed this one without it being an instant reread. However because of the very high standard of the writing I would have rated it higher. 🙂 Thanks Jeff.

    Reply
  • 🙂 enjoyed this book very much – loved the MCs and the secondary characters as well – I am looking forward to the next books as this was very clearly for me a first in a series – lots of threads that can be picked up as the series progresses and as usual with Josh Lanyon – wonderfully written,interesting,funny,a little bit of sauce and some mystery! I think that your review was good but perphaps your rating was a bit low.

    Reply
  • I totally loved the beginning of this book and felt it was like eating chocolate after being without for years. The ending suprised me though and I was a disappointed with the simplistic resolution of the “love-affair”.

    I got the impression in the beginning that both characters were more troubled in showing affection and it felt it was resolved too fast and easy in the end. Also I was a bit irritated at the private detective for not really focusing on the case. The story started as a mystery but ended as a romance, which was a bit confusing. Still, loved the world-building in the first part of the book.

    Reply
  • I actually loved this book. I’d have given it a higher rating. And the use of Oriental thrilled me. Being part-Asian, I was rather bemused by the “Oriental is a rug” sniffing tone that developed around the use of the word Asian. I’m fine with being Oriental. Or Occidental. Asian works too but the use of Oriental in the book was a good touch. I for one am not offended by the word at all.

    I liked that there was conflict and a bit of runaround. It wasn’t a straight (no pun) shot from point A to point B and dealt with the conflicts in both characters. Neil’s unapologetic sexuality was great and even though he was constricted in his movements, he still made no excuses for who he found attractive. I loved that about his character.

    This book totally worked for me. 😀

    Reply
  • I couldn’t really connect to your take on the book. Maybe because I didn’t come to it with the same expectations you had. Since a Lanyon book is an auto buy for me, I didn’t know much about it before I read it. I didn’t know about the Thin Man connection, nor did I know it was the first of a series. As such, I didn’t have any pre-conceived notions about the plot & characters and my only expectation was the great writing I’ve come to expect from Josh. And I wasn’t disappointed.

    Whatever Josh (or his publisher) may have claimed in plugging the book, I’m glad Rafferty is more hard-boiled than Nick Charles. He’s the kind of 1930s detective I love from the movies, with maybe more of a soft underbelly showing in his feelings for Brett. And I like the opposites attract element in their pairing: high society meets orphan boy. I expect there will be more to play with there in future books.

    And though the tone wasn’t as light and witty as a Thin Man movie, there was enough humor from Rafferty (both in his words & his thoughts) to satisfy me. Brett’s side of things was a bit sad in this go-round. That should change in future books.

    So all-in-all, I would give it a rating more like Leslie’s. I loved this book and I’m very excited to hear there will be more of Brett & Rafferty.

    Reply

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