Title: The Heart of the Jungle
Author: Jeremy Pack
Cover art: Catt Ford
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Buy link: The Heart of the Jungle Amazon.com
Length: novel/250 PDF pages/79,418 words
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
A guest review by LadyM
Review summary: Well-written mystery/suspense that suffers from a case of “tell, not show”. In spite of its flaws, the book is a refreshing addition to the genre.
Blurb: Chris James is Fate’s favorite plaything. When She took his parents in a car crash, Chris narrowly escaped the grief with his life, and he has the scars on his wrists to prove it. Seven years later, just as his life is finally turning around, Fate smashes his universe once again, taking his partner and two-year-old daughter and leaving behind a bloodbath.
After nearly a year of investigation, with no bodies, no motive, and no clues, the police are giving up. Enter Jason Kingsley, a wickedly handsome private investigator with a troubled past and a disconnected puzzle piece he could never find a place for. Jason has his work cut out for him: his search leads down a road that was never meant to be traveled, where a ruthless and hidden enemy lurks and dark secrets await. With passion drawing them together and sinister forces threatening to tear them apart, Chris and Jason race against time to unravel the mystery and get to the shocking truth that lies behind it all: The Heart of the Jungle.
My ongoing romance with mysteries started during one summer while I was in junior high when I read two dozen of Agatha Christie’s novels. When I started reading gay fiction/romance, my love for mysteries followed me. From Dave Brandstetter to Adrien English, from Donald Strachey to Stanley Kroski, there is something so appealing, something that kicks ass out of the most blatant stereotypes in the gay man who is tougher, meaner, smarter than some very tough, mean and smart bad guys. So, when a new author who writes mysteries appears in our little corner of the publishing world, you can bet that I will jump right at him. Well… his book, anyway. 😀 At this point, I have to admit that my initial enthusiasm about the book played a small part in the final rating of this story.
A couple of warnings first. This is not a romance. There are some romantic elements in the book which are used as a plot device, but go into this book with realistic expectations and enjoy it for what it is – a mystery. Second, I was personally disgruntled by the publisher’s choice of the book cover (not the quality of it, but the content), so much so that I wanted to omit it completely from the review. Realistically, I had to conclude that people interested in buying this book will see it, so I advise you to engage in short memory loss, because the cover reveals one of the story lines – in short, it is a major spoiler.
The author has an excellent writing style for this genre – clean, unobtrusive – that eases you right into the story. And the story starts strongly with Christian James, columnist for a lifestyle magazine, coming home to find it turned into a crime scene. His house is covered in blood and, although his partner and his daughter are missing, the police conclude that they were murder victims. Fast forward one year. Without any clues or suspects, the police are closing the case. Without any hope or closure, brokenhearted Chris decides to end it all and take his life. But before he even tries he is visited by Jason Kingsley, a former FBI agent, now private investigator, who witnessed Chris’s meltdown in the police station. He has a piece of information for Chris, a tidbit left from one of his previous cases, which may be connected to the disappearance of Chris’s family.
At this point, I was hooked on the story and intrigued by the characters. But I soon started having trouble staying focused on the story. I had to take frequent breaks. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why that was at first. I thought that the conspiracy Chris and Jason were trying to uncover was contrived (or, as the author says, “elaborate”), but the author explained why was that necessary. I had trouble with the characterization and, especially, Chris’s behavior, but the author explained that too. And then it hit me – that was exactly my problem. Throughout the novel the author tells things to us, explains them to us, instead of showing them to us. This created a distance from the characters, and although they should have been sympathetic, especially Chris who had suffered so much, I found it difficult to understand them, to understand some of their actions. I couldn’t help thinking that The Heart of the Jungle would have been a great movie where the actors’ expressions and movie images would supplement the emotional content. I don’t want to imply that there were no great emotional moments in the book: the scene where Chris tells Jason how it felt to have a daughter come into his life left me really choked up. However, I had a hard time believing in their connection, especially the fact that Jason falls in love with Chris within two or three days after meeting him.
Perhaps my biggest complaint comes from the fact that somewhere half way through the novel the story gets a big boost from Chris’s TSTL (too stupid to live) moment. After a falling-out with Jason, an angry Chris does the stupidest thing possible, endangering more than his own life, which drives the novel to the very end. I wished that the events, including some incredible twists and turns that follow, would have developed more naturally. Additionally, the development of the protagonists is rather static. In Jason’s case, it happens somewhat through his interaction with Chris, but the main change occurred through a coincidental meeting that makes him reevaluate his past in the FBI. In Chris’s case, the main changes happened off-page, in the period between the ending of the novel and the epilogue. Among the secondary characters, I especially liked Jason’s former colleague Frank. The conclusion of the story was very exciting and it kept me on the edge of my seat.
As I said at the beginning, a small part of my criticism stems from the high expectations I had after reading the great beginning of this story. I recognize that your experience will also depend on your mileage in the mystery genre. It’s quite possible that your impressions will be significantly different than mine. The author has a great command of language and obviously a lot of imagination. In fact, considering that this is his first novel, I suspect that Jeremy Pack will be a wonderful addition to the genre.