Review: The Amethyst Cat Caper by Charlie Cochet

Two years ago, Remington Trueblood left England and everything he held dear for the chance at a new life. Now the successful owner of The Purple Rose Tea House in Manhattan, Remi has come across the perfect addition to his business: a stunning amethyst cat. But Remi’s acquired something else with his latest purchase: the attention of the notorious Gentleman Thief!

Detective Stanley Hawk doesn’t know the first thing about tea. He’s strictly a java kind of guy. What he does know, is crime, and someone’s just committed one. As a Pinkerton’s, Hawk always gets his man, and when his investigations lead him straight to Remi, the words have never been truer.

Can Remi and Hawk resist each other long enough to figure out who the thief is and what the heck is going on? Or will the Gentleman Thief get his hands on more than just the Amethyst Cat? 

Review by Erastes

This is the second book I’ve read by Ms Cochet (When Love Walks In was the first) and like the first one, I was impressed, and also the author has a talent for creating characters and situations which we’d not only like to see more of – we can say that about many books – but which stories lead naturally to a conclusion, whilst still leaving the door open for More Adventures.

Set, like her other book, during the Great Depression in America, this deals with the top end of society. Englishman Remi (Remington) has left his wealthy family in England due to his incapacity to please his father–marry where ordered, continue the line, that kind of thing–and came to America and is living the American dream. He starts a tea house in the centre of Manhattan and it’s doing really rather well, making him a millionaire twice over in his early twenties.

So, although the struggling masses of the depression are mentioned a few times, you don’t really get to see them. This is a world of Hollywood style opulence, art deco interiors and shiny shiny things. And it’s described very well with just enough scene setting to see where we are, but not overdoing the detail by telling us who made every knick-knack and trinket.

The characters come to live quite beautifully on the page. Remi for instance, seen through the eyes of the burly detective Hawk is easily conjured to mind. Slim, wonderfully tailored and gorgeous to boot. It’s nice that he doesn’t consider the man’s wealth as part of the deal. What I particularly liked was that Remi was damaged a little, from his relationship with his family, and from the first man he ever fell in love with who “done him wrong.” Hawk, sadly, although I liked him as a character doesn’t have this particular depth and I bonded with him much less than I did with Remi. Hawk seems to get swept away with Remi so easily and the problems that their relationship might bring aren’t even considered until right at the end of the book. I think I’d have liked him to be a bit more noir, as I feel he considers himself a Sam Spade but he doesn’t come over that way, he’s more protective and lustful.

There’s a lot of eye colour detail too, which I have to say I’m over when it comes to romance novels. I don’t know anyone with violet or emerald eyes and I’d probably punch them if I did.

The story is good too, and tight, having a definite arc which begins and ends with exciting well-written action. Having struggled with action myself, I know how damned hard it can be to write when three men are struggling and there’s a gun involved, but Cochet pulls it off with cinematic style.

The third person is, of course, the Gentleman Thief and I was delighted when I entirely missed the clues as to who it might be and plumped for someone it absolutely wasn’t. That kind of red-herring-ism is a bit hit with me and I enjoyed guessing.

So, what with good period detail, movie-style flair, good characters and an ending which practically sets itself up for a whole series of “Capers” in the future, I have no problems with thoroughly recommending The Amethyst Cat Caper and look forward to more from Ms Cochet.

And it has to be said, because I’ve pointed out their errors so often, this was lacking in errors which was a refreshing change! I also liked the cover a lot, but sadly on Kindle it’s only in black and white.

Author’s Website

Ebook only.

Buy at Torquere | Kindle UK | Kindle USA

Review: My Dearest Holmes by Rohase Piercy

‘… The accounts of these cases are too bound up with events in my personal life which, although they may provide a plausible commentary to much of my dealings with Mr Sherlock Holmes, can never be made public while he or I remain alive …’

Although Dr Watson is known for recording some sixty of his adventures with the celebrated Sherlock Holmes, he also wrote other reminiscences of their long friendship which were never intended for publication during their lifetimes.

“Rescued from oblivion by Rohase Piercy,” here are two previously unknown stories about the great detective and his companion, throwing a fresh light upon their famous partnership, and helping to explain much which has puzzled their devotees. Together Holmes and Watson face disturbing revelations as they investigate the case of the Queen Bee; and we finally learn what actually happened at the Reichenbach Falls, and the real reasons which lay behind Holmes’ faked death and his subsequent return.

Review by Erastes

A nice deceit, that Rohase Piercy found the manuscripts and has published them. Watson’s preface is rather sad as it talks of how he hopes that men of his type have things better than men of his generation.

It’s been a very long time since I read Holmes in canon. I have the complete works and I hoovered them up all at once in my 20’s and haven’t read them since, but from what I remember these two little novellas, each cataloguing a different case of the great detective, are written by a true Holmesian.

The first story is:   A Discreet Investigation and is set just after the Sign of Four. I think the first story in this two-story collection is more original, although as I say, my canon knowledge is rusty–but the second story seems definitely more derivative but I did enjoy them both.

Watson simply runs the story through a filter telling “the truth” rather than what he published at the time. Dealing with why he left Holmes’ residence, how they ended up in Europe together, why Moriaty was chasing Holmes and why Holmes was missing for the time he was. it’s true that Watson does get a little emo at times, and more overtly towards the end, but I found that quite endearing, and he does bottle things up and he strikes me as the kind of a man who would break down after bottling things up for years.He did have cause to be upset, after all! The voice in both stories seems to be to be pitch perfect–I couldn’t tell you if there are canon errors, and if you aren’t a complete nit-picky Holmes-fanatic then you won’t care that much.

Watson’s voice is very good, and the language is done beautifully to match the canon and the time when the original was written.

The second story is The Final Problem and Holmes prefaces it with a note which says that “It is always diffcult – indeed, almost impossible – to set down an accurate record of the more painful events of one’s life…” As this story begins, Watson is married to Mary Morstan and has left Holmes, his residence and his cases behind. I believe (I may be wrong) that the canon never confirms that John married Mary–although a second wife is mentioned at some point, so it’s possible. I am pretty sure that if you are fan of the canon you will enjoy these two stories immensely. I think you will forgive Watson’s foray into sentimentality, after all, it was something he was accused of often by the great detective.

Holmes is also written beautifully, particularly pure even for being in love and entirely unable to say or show it–I think the pure brittle heartbreak of how this is worked was my favourite section. There’s perhaps a smidge of OKHomo throughout, or a dollop… but it was all such a good read, and obviously done as an homage by someone who knows and loves his/her subject, I was quite willing to overlook it when a lesser writer would get more a smacked wrist.

Overall the two novellas do tend to lurch into too much emo at times, but the pure Holmesian character keeps it buoyed up despite this. I’m sure anyone with any interest in Holmes, detective fiction, turn of the century fiction will enjoy this as much as I did.

No author’s website found

Amazon UK   Amazon USA Available as ebook and print

Review: The Psychic and the Sleuth by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

Trusting a psychic flash might solve a mystery…and lead to love.

Inspector Robert Court should have felt a sense of justice when a rag-and-bones man went to the gallows for murdering his cousin. Yet something has never felt right about the investigation. Robert’s relentless quest for the truth has annoyed his superintendent, landing him lowly assignments such as foiling a false medium who’s fleecing the wives of the elite.

Oliver Marsh plays the confidence game of spiritualism, though his flashes of insight often offer his clients some comfort. Despite the presence of an attractive, if sneering, non-believer at a séance, he carries on—and experiences a horrifying psychic episode in which he experiences a murder as the victim.

There’s only one way for Court to learn if the young, dangerously attractive Marsh is his cousin’s killer or a real psychic: spend as much time with him as possible. Despite his resolve to focus on his job, Marsh somehow manages to weave a seductive spell around the inspector’s straight-laced heart.

Gradually, undeniable attraction overcomes caution. The two men are on the case, and on each other, as they race to stop a murderer before he kills again.  

Review by Erastes

I ummed and ahhed about reviewing this one, because it does have some paranormal aspects (spiritualism) but I’ve decided that this could be treated in the same way as ghosts – the only other paranormal theme we accept – because it could be subjective and brought on by other reasons, such as split personalities  etc.

This book continues this writing partnership’s run of titles with similar names, The Nobleman and the Spy, The Gentleman and the Rogue–there’s endless fodder here and long may they continue to do them.

If you enjoyed either of the last titles, then you’ll certainly enjoy this. The thing is that although the titles are similar and there might be the danger that the authors would find it easy to slip into a pattern of plot that would be highly predictable they are to be commended that they don’t do that at all.

This, quite apart from the gay romance within it, is a good Victorian sleuth story which stands firmly on its own two feet. You could remove the gay romance and the detective story would still be viable, and that’s needed in the genre, too many stories simply concentrate on the meeting and eventual falling in love.

Yes, there’s instant attraction on both sides, and this attraction is acted on pretty soon, and both parties start to realise they are becoming fonder of each other than is wise, but the detective story runs neatly parallel to this at a good pace, deflecting us from simply concentrating on the uncertain love affair. This makes the balance of the book great and therefore accessible to more than just people who want gay sex stories.

The sex is nicely written, with a BDSM theme. I’m not a fan of the trope, and find it odd that so many gay books have it–far higher percentage of men in fiction indulge than do in real life, I’m sure, but what there is is nicely done. At least for me with little knowledge of the lifestyle. It’s most definitely “play” and the bottom is the top, which is how it should be. There was one scene where–for me–it tipped from sexy to rather giggle worthy, but I am 12 and I’m sure others won’t be as juvenile as me.

There are many secondary characters here, as befits a sleuthing story, and each one is given the necessary weight as suspicion shifts from person to person. As well the suspects there is a veritable line-up of society matrons, simpering hopefuls for the bachelor Court’s affections and Dickensian work colleagues.

What I liked most is that both characters, whilst developing in their personality throughout, both for the better, remained true to their core beliefs. Robert is a copper, to his bootstraps and he was sent to investigate Oliver’s mediuming (don’t think that’s a word!) and the way he deals with it after Oliver becomes his lover is entirely in character. Similarly, the authors give Oliver a need to want to help people, and he’s never been comfortable conning them, although he’s been very clever never to actually do anything that could be proved to be fraudulent.

I would have liked to have seen a little more of Oliver’s original business, as he seemed to give it up altogether very quickly.

One thing that jarred for me–and again, I know that some readers love this device–was the sex scene that was put in after the denouement and the concluding sections. It seemed really jammed in and it added nothing to the plot, and my criteria has always been with sex scenes, if you can lift them out and they don’t cause a ripple, they didn’t belong there in the first place.

However, despite a couple of tiny niggles, it’s a really enjoyable read, and if you like Victoriana, crime fiction and anything written by this dynamic duo, then you’ll like this with great big brass knobs on.

The score doesn’t reflect it, but for shame, Samhain–surely you could have done a better job on the cover than that? Elasticated boxers? So much scope with lovely Victorian scenes and clothes and we get disconnected naked guys and a Matt Bomer lookalike.

Authors’ websites: Bonnie DeeSummer Devon

Buy: Amazon UK  Amazon USA  Samhain

Review: Home Fires Burning by Charlie Cochrane

Two stories, two couples, two eras, timeless emotions. 

“This Ground Which Was Secured At Great Expense”

It is 1914 and The Great War is underway. When the call to arms comes, Nicholas Southwell won’t be found hanging back. It’s a pity he can’t be so decisive when it comes to letting his estate manager Paul Haskell know what he feels before he has to leave for the front line. In the trenches Nicholas meets a fellow officer, Phillip Taylor, who takes him into the unclaimed territory of physical love. Which one will he choose, if he’s allowed the choice?

“The Case of the Overprotective Ass”

Stars of the silver screen Alasdair Hamilton and Toby Bowe are wowing the post WWII audiences with their depictions of Holmes and Watson. When they are asked by a friend to investigate a mysterious disappearance, they jump at the chance—surely detection can’t be that hard? But a series of threatening letters—and an unwanted suitor—make real life very different from the movies. 

Review by Erastes

Let me say up front that I thoroughly enjoyed both books, as I expected I would. I just didn’t enjoy the overall experience as much as I thought I would.

The trouble for me came with the stark differences in tone. I can see possibly why this was done, to offer some light relief in the second story to compensate for the pain of reading the first one, but I found the disconnect a little too much. The light frothy feel of the second book seemed to lessen the really true impact of the first, and that was a shame. I wish I had read them the other way around.

This Ground Which Was Secured At Great Expense

You can usually assume that any book dealing with the Great War is going to be a harrowing story, unless the writer doesn’t do their job properly and this one is no exception. Don’t be put off–this deals as lightly as it can with the actual job of soldiering in the trenches, and while there is description of the environments and atmosphere of that time, it won’t make you go cold in sheer horror as some books have done.

One thing that struck me as I was reading was the way that Cochrane’s writing has evolved over the years that I’ve been reading her. She could always write a good yarn and she’s always been on my list of Must Reads but this book shines for me as the best thing she’s ever done.

She doesn’t take the easy option with this book–e.g. that of one man meeting another, having conflict in the war, and despite all odds coming through to find his true love. That, married to the wonderful writing, would have been sufficient–but (and forgive me if I’m wrong here) Cochrane for the first time decides to explore some flawed characters. In fact, this darkness had begun to creep into the Cambridge Fellows series towards the end, and that’s what made it fascinating for me, but Cochrane shows true strength of prose as she explores the love square, one must call it I suppose, between Nicholas, Paul, Phillip and Fergal.

The most touching moments for me were those between Nicholas and Phillip, and the way the story has them coming together (as it were) due to many reasons: war, anger with another, loneliness and just damned human need.

As you can see, there are too many people in the equation to have a realistic gay historical romance ending, so you’ll already realise that choices have to be made and something’s gotta give. I won’t spoil it, but it’s wrapped up very deftly, without cloying into saccharine sentiment and my eyes were moist, which is always a good ending for me.

Absolutely marvellous read–please do not miss this one. I can only hold my breath to see where Cochrane goes next.

The Case of the Over-Protective Ass

We are back on familiar ground here, as Ms Cochrane demonstates her skill at sleuthing. Our heroes, both stars of the silver screen, and protected as much as possible by their studio are in love and having a rather lovely affair, although as discreet as possible.  They are asked by a theatre impresario, to find his missing secretary and the game is afoot.

I quite liked Toby and Alasdair, but I didn’t warm to them the way I warmed to Orlando and Jonty from The Cambridge Fellows series, they seemed a bit too similar to the Fellows – not altogether surprising, I suppose, being two sets of homosexual sleuths deeply in love with a penchant for innuendo and double entendre. But I would have liked them to be more distinct from their Cambridge counterparts–to have voices more their own.

However, the story is engaging, with one mystery spilling into another and the progression of it is nicely handled with no sudden incomprehensible jumps as the reader is kept nicely informed of progress all the way. There was one glaring error I spotted, and that was Alasdair speaking of the Aunt’s will a couple of pages before said aunt and said will had even been discovered by Toby, but that was all. The editing slipped a little here and there, with a few missing punctuation marks, and the wrong homonym used at one point.

But as a piece of entertaining crime-solving fiction, I recommend it highly, the protagonists are amusing and sweet in turns, although the sex was a little over-stylised for me (compared with the more subtle and almost glossed over scenes in the first story) but the mystery rumbles along at a good pace never making the reader bored.  I could quite easily see these characters having their own series of books, but I hope that doesn’t happen and that Ms Cochrane investigates and develops the growing power of her writing as shown in “This Ground.”

It’s just that overall, I couldn’t gel the two stories together, I think I would have liked (as in Ginn Hale’s Wicked Gentlemen) two novellas relating to the same characters, or–if about two sets of people–two novellas more similar in tone. Not necessarily both about the Great War, but The Case of the Over Protective Ass didn’t have the impact it should have if it had been a readalone, because of the power and strength of the first story.

I liked both stories, but have to give “This Ground” a resounding five stars, as I couldn’t get it out of my head afterwards but “The Case of The Over Protective Ass” only gets a four. Overall, the duet of stories gets a 4½ and a highly recommended.

Buy at AllRomance ebooks    Amazon UK  Amazon USA

Review: The Demon’s Parchment by Jeri Westerson

In fourteenth century London, Crispin Guest is a disgraced knight convicted of treason and stripped of his land, title and his honor. He has become known as the “Tracker”—a man who can find anything, can solve any puzzle and, with the help of his apprentice, Jack Tucker, an orphaned street urchin with a thief’s touch—will do so for a price. But this time, even Crispin is wary of taking on his most recent client. Jacob of Provencal is a Jewish physician at the King’s court, even though all Jews were expelled from England nearly a century before. Jacob wants Crispin to find stolen parchments that might be behind the recent, ongoing, gruesome murders of young boys, parchments that someone might have used to bring forth a demon which now stalks the streets and alleys of London.

Review by Yakalskovich

This is not a gay-themed book as such, it’s a straight medieval whodunnit with some gay elements, and I must say I am not really happy how some of them have been handled. Why does the one sympathetic gay character have to be a cross-dressing prostitute? And why should the protagonist fall for a proud young man, wrestling with his emotions for about two hours before he realises he’s a girl in disguise, so everything is all right again as he’s not secretly tarnished by Teh Gay?

The problems start with the protagonist himself. I understand this is an established series printed on paper, but angst does not necessarily make everything better and deeper. Crispin Guest is a drunkard former nobleman who angsts about his former life, drinks a lot at every turn, snarks at people who want to help him, then staggers and stumbles through his investigation with an unexplained instinctual gift and a lot of serendipity that lets him happen on evidence (and, finally and inevitably, the solution) before he keels over drunk again.

Then there is the thing about inserting contemporary sensibilities into a historical story. Jeri Westerson at first evades the trap ostentatiously by having Crispin matter-of-factly share the contemporary prejudice against Jews, believing wholesale the nonsense fabricated about them in England prior to their expulsion in 1290 — which is almost a hundred years in the past for the late medieval post-pestilence setting of 1384. After demonstrating that she will have the N-word said, so to speak, for the sake of historical correctness, she then gives it all away by pulling a full Dostoevsky when the first murdered boy is discovered:

“The men about Crispin kept their vigil, murmuring prayers quietly beside the stricken  boy. Crispin uttered no prayers. He could not. He found it hard to ascribe to a God who would allow mere men to debase such innocence. Who would murder a child? And in such a way? Not out of sudden anger with a blow to the head to teach him better, an accident perhaps. But in a deliberate act of cruelty and barbarism, for surely such steady strangulation, looking into the eyes of the child as he struggled to breathe, was not the act of a man. Not a man who walked the earth among other men. No one who breathed the same air, ate the same food, watched the same stars ebb and flow across the sky.” (p. 17)

I am sorry, dear Ms Westerson, but that is not how a medieval man would have thought about children. The concept of childhood as a state of being that is quite separate from the adult human state is something that wasn’t developed until the 19th century, and the special horror reserved for sexual child abuse as the utmost of crimes is quite modern. Medieval men thought nothing of marrying twelve-year-old girls to men triple their age if it suited their fathers’ business or political connections. Pauper children got under the wheels of fate, survived or not, and nobody cared much about them. There being brothels offering boys would have been abominable for the sake of the ‘sodomy’, not because they were still children, more or less. Of course there were brothels offering boys — what else should the sodomites sodomise?

From then on, the story splashes from one pothole-full of gooey trope into the next. Of course the Jews study the traditions of the kabbalah (which was then in fact relatively new, having been developed around the same time as Christian scholasticism), and of course, once you say kabbalah, you have to say Golem. Oh, and of course the One Sympathetic Gay character is as horrified by the idea of children being prostituted and abused as the main protagonist is. Of course Crispin sees the light about Jews in general and starts to protect them, abjuring his prejudices. Of course the fascinating young man is secretly a girl and only then can be snogged back (as mentioned before — but that is the point where she really lost me). And of course everything is hushed up at the end, and nobody is interested in the truth, so Crispin resumes his drunken staggering about, insults some kind people some more, and angsts a lot, to everybody annoyance, including this reader’s.

This book may work as a medieval whodunnit of the sort that people read by the stack on long plane rides. As such, it is quite entertaining, if in an annoying way where you forge towards the end just because you want to know just how serious the author expects us to take her clichéd Golem. That’s why this is worth two stars, not just one. But a milestone in GLBT historicals? This definitely is not. Sorry.

Author’s website: http://www.jeriwesterson.com

Buy from:  Amazon UK    Amazon USA

Review: Lily White, Rose Red by Catt Ford


Grey Randall: Private Dick Casefile #1

Meet Grey Randall, a hard-boiled detective whose sense of humor makes it hard for him to stay strictly noir. It’s 1948 in Las Vegas—the newborn Sin City—and he’s just landed his first murder case. He’s more at ease among the lowlifes, but his new client, a beautiful, wealthy woman, a real femme fatale, moves in the upper crust of society.

Grey’s hot on the trail of a killer, despite obstructive cops who don’t want a private dick sniffing around and digging up secrets. And he starts getting close to the truth, but one of his suspects, Phillip Martin, AKA Mr. Big—AKA Mr. Beautiful—proves to be a man who could force Grey to reveal a dark secret of his own.

Review by Sally Davis

I dearly love a good PI story so was excited to get Catt Ford’s “Lily White, Rose Red” for review. The cover was designed by the author and is a classic noir image of the man in the snap brimmed hat preparing to walk the mean streets! I was a bit thrown by the plastic Dymo tape labelling – to me that just screams 1960s, rather than 1948 – but apparently similar machines existed just after the war, stamping into aluminium strips instead of plastic, so more fool me for jumping to conclusions.

Just so we know what we’re getting into there’s a silhouette in the background and, instead of the usual curvaceous broad poised to make trouble for our hero, it’s another fedoraed, trenchcoated fellow.

Not that there aren’t an unusual number of women in the story, which begins in the most traditional way possible.

Femmes fatales had been noticeably absent since I hung out my shingle, but the day she opened the door without knocking, I knew I’d hit the jackpot.

The delicious Lily MacIntyre, ex-burlesque queen and friend of men in high places, enters Randall’s office to hire him to investigate his very first murder – that of a young dancer in whose career Lily had taken an interest. At first it appears that her selection of Randall is pure chance but later it is revealed that there is evidence associated with the case that no police officer could plausibly investigate – it’s something no straight man would know about. But Randall is eminently qualified and the adventure takes him to secret gay bars and to the offices of the rich and powerful. On his way he is both helped and hindered by local police officers, by female librarian Charlie, by Lily and her household, by a gay pugilist and by Mr Big, who may or may not be straight.

Trouble is my business – and I’m open twenty-four hours

As one would expect Randall is tough, driven and wise-cracking. This caused me a little bit of a problem because, while those attributes contribute to his success, I found that some of his bull-headedness in dealing even with his friends made him  unsympathetic. There were other secondary characters who engaged me far more emotionally and I hope they get more ‘screen time’ in subsequent books in the series.

But on the whole it was a fun romp, clues were dropped gradually and there were enough suspects to cloud the issue. If Grey Randall, Private Dick has a Case#2 I think I will read it.

Available from Dreamspinner Press

Review: Willing Flesh by J S Cook (Inspector Raft Mysteries #1)

When a series of bizarre murders occur in London’s notorious East End, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Philemon Raft is called on to solve the crimes, but even he is powerless to explain why the victims are displayed in public places — or why the killer insists on drilling burr holes in their skulls. With little to go on except the strange red dust found on the victims’ palms, Raft must scour the city looking for an explanation. Aided only by his newly-appointed constable Freddie Crook, Raft’s investigation takes him into London’s most dark and dangerous places, where human predators wait to devour and destroy.

But Raft has an even bigger problem: a casual acquaintance is blackmailing him, and what she knows about his secrets could tear Raft’s life to pieces

Review by Erastes

This is a grown up murder mystery. Don’t go into without an ability to read unpleasantness. This is Victorian London in all its gothic nastiness where life is extremely cheap and grotesque is the name of the game. In fact grotesque would be a good sub-genre for this, but that’s not an insult. This faces the dark, dingy and seedy London of the 1880’s head on and finds it covered it gore. If you liked The Alienist this will be right up your dark , cobbled street.

I’ve read JS Cook before and I know her from the internet. She is, although some of you will find this hard to countenance, even more obsessed with total accuracy than I am. She’s a perfectly nice looking woman who you would not think capable of experimenting with “Kensington gore” and fake paper mache skulls to see how brain and blood might spatter across a wall. She’s Dexter, but without the irritating habit of wrapping people in clingfilm. She takes her crime extremely seriously, and that echoes beautifully in her creation of Inspector Philemon Raft.

He’s a dour obsessive with a keen eye for observation. But he’s no idiot savant or genius and good job too. He can’t look at flowerbed and know that a drunk sailor stood there before travelling to Tahiti. What he finds out he finds out either by hard graft, sending someone else to do hard graft or by outside information. In this I found him to be extremely believable because even today most of police successes are based on outsider information. He’s ably assisted by the lovely Constable Freddie Crook who is not all he seems, and a lot more besides.

I found Raft a little uneven. I like detectives to have quirks–Poirot had OCD (must have had, surely!), Holmes took coke, and so on,and in that vein, Raft seems a little unhinged when he’s deep in thought, and I liked this rather frenetic side of him, but this device wasn’t regular enough to be a quirk. He’s also mildly clairvoyant, and I haven’t let this aspect of him preclude this book from review–because he may simply be hallucinating–or it could be his subconscious helping his detetcting. It’s good that this is not fully explored because he pushes it down and that works well.

I absolutely loved the Dickensian feel when it comes to the names. They were lush and rolled around the mouth like honey. Featherstonehaugh, Breedlove, Butter and so on. In fact it’s wrong to say “Dickensian” because Cook has her own style, her own voice and although there are tones picked up from others it comes over as entirely hers.

It needed a really tough and experienced edit, though. Not for typographical reasons but because one or two facts contradict themselves and that’s a shame and spoils an otherwise good effort. For example there’s a point where a thumb injury is pertinent to the plot and the first time Raft sees it he recognises what caused it because he’s seen something very similar before. BUT later in the story it’s said “Raft had never seen anything like it.” There are a couple of these continuity problems which probably wouldn’t matter in any other genre but did in this–it just made Raft seem rather stupid, and he’s certainly not that.

Where Cook really excels (aside from her medical knowledge) is her immersive description. Every scene is 3 dimensional–from the feel of the cobbles on the street, to a musty coat on a hook, to the smell of rotting flesh to the sounds of carriages passing by the window. It’s fantastically real and very addictive.

The story itself is deep, twisty, plotty and at times you feel that all the threads are going in different directions. It’s not the sort of cosy mystery that you’ll like if you want your detective to be following one lead which leads to another. It’s more like the time of TV drama where the detective is bombarded with conflicting and confusing theories and characters and information–and none of it seems to tie up. So you need to concentrate with this book, you can’t coast and let the author hand feed you the clues.

Yes, there is a gay plotline, but it’s not at all the main theme of the book. The crime’s the thing–and Raft and Crook will have to work out their relationship in the midst of another gruesome set of circumstances, which they will in “Rag and Bone” which I’ll be reviewing later.

Overall, I highly recommend this if you are lover of gritty detective fiction. It gets a very solid four from me and I look forward to more of Philemon Raft.

Author’s Website

Amazon UK     Amazon USA

Review: The Affair of the Porcelain Dog by Jess Faraday

London 1889.

For Ira Adler, former rent-boy and present plaything of crime lord Cain Goddard, stealing back the statue of a porcelain dog from Goddard’s blackmailer should have been a doddle. But inside the statue is evidence that could put Goddard away for a long time under the sodomy laws, and everyone’s after it, including Ira’s bitter ex, Dr. Timothy Lazarus. No sooner does Ira have the porcelain dog in his hot little hands, than he loses it to a nimble-fingered prostitute.

As Ira’s search for the dog drags him back to the mean East End streets where he grew up, he discovers secrets about his own past, and about Goddard’s present business dealings, which make him question everything he thought he knew. An old friend turns up dead, and an old enemy proves himself a friend. Goddard is pressing Ira for a commitment, but every new discovery casts doubt on whether Ira can, in good conscience, remain with him.

In the end, Ira must choose between his hard-won life of luxury and standing against a grievous wrong.

Review by Erastes

Not your normal Holmes clone, that’s for sure. Although this story is set in late Victorian London, and around the Baker Street area, there’s a highly enjoyable twist.

The point of view is told, first person, by Ira Adler. But instead of being a Doctor Watson clone,and the companion of a great detective, Ira is the live-in companion, “private secretary” and lover of Cain Goddard, the dread “Duke of Dorset Street.” Goddard is a crime lord, so in some respects, he’s a Moriaty clone. But not quite. Because in this fictional imagining, the “great detective” of the time is Andrews St Andrews who is, frankly, a bit of a twat (written to be so) and adds some great giggles to the text. He’s a real Holmes wanabee, a poseur and frankly not very good at his job. The brains of the St Andrews outfit is St Andrews’ companion, Tim Lazarus–and Lazarus is an ex-lover of Ira. Already it promises to be quite tortuous and it won’t let you down on that score.

The beginning was excellently paced–and in no time at all we into an action scene that just begged to be filmed.

The plot is very nice indeed. It’s more Philip Marlowe than Conan Doyle. Each clue leads you deeper in and further away from where you began, and it’s as opaque as the London smog.

The characterisations are excellent, all round. Some books you read, characters have similar voices, but each and every character here, and there’s a good dusting, is his own person with his own demons and issues.  And boy are there are lot of demons. This is the underbelly of London in the 19th century and it’s not a nice place. Either you are a leader or you get used. Child labour, opium dens, brothels, and exploitation of every kind. Ira holds an interesting position in this world, because he came from the gutter, but now he steps in an upper middle-class world where never thought he would, but retains his knowledge and connections that he’d rather have left behind forever.

I absolutely loved–with a big squishy heart–the bittersweet relationship between Ira and Cain Goddard. In a way,this is a coming of age story, because Ira has to face to harsh truths, look deep inside him, and make some hard decisions. He has a massive chip on his shoulder, but that’s only to be expected. He started his relationship with Cain as his prostitute, so he finds it hard that Cain really and truly cares for him–and similarly, Cain would have similar fears. Despite there being much that is wrong about their relationship, and who Cain is, I wanted them to be happy.

Yes, there seems to be a good deal of homosexuality in the book: There area few couples. But seeing as how Ira was a renter before Goddard took him under his wing,that’s not really surprising.  The homosexuality is never glossed over, though,never treated lightly. You are always aware of Labouchere’s Amendment hanging like a sword of Damocles over everyone’s heads–and it’s this threat, in fact which launches the story, as both Goddard and St Andrews are being blackmailed. There’s a lovely scene in Hyde Park where they walk so they can hold hands in public (in the dark) and you can’t help but feel sorry for them, that even the smallest of touches have to be considered –you never know who’s watching.

Be warned,you don’t get a “Romance” ending, and more than that I will not say, but the ending is beautifully done, and leaves it wide open for a sequel or more and I hope there will be. I’m dying to see what Ira gets up to. This will apppeal to a broad swathe of readers–and should do, in a fair world this should be picked up by a mainstream audience, because other than homosexual themes there’s nothing a non m/m reader would find uncomfortable to read–whether you like detective fiction, noir, Victorian stories or just damned good love stories, this will appeal to you. I neglected to mention this is her first novel. Well done Ms Faraday.

Author’s website

Bold Strokes Books    Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: All Lessons Learned by Charlie Cochrane

He’s at the end of his rope…until fate casts a lifeline.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 8

The Great War is over. Freed from a prisoner of war camp and back at St. Bride’s College, Orlando Coppersmith is discovering what those years have cost. All he holds dear—including his beloved Jonty Stewart, lost in combat.

A commission to investigate a young officer’s disappearance gives Orlando new direction…temporarily. The deceptively simple case becomes a maze of conflicting stories—is Daniel McNeil a deserter, or a hero?—taking Orlando into the world of the shell-shocked and broken. And his sense of Jonty’s absence becomes painfully acute. Especially when a brief spark of attraction for a Cambridge historian, instead of offering comfort, triggers overwhelming guilt.

As he hovers on the brink of despair, a chance encounter on the French seafront at Cabourg brings new hope and unexpected joy. But the crushing aftereffects of war could destroy his second chance, leaving him more lost and alone than ever…

Review by Erastes

I was expecting to have my heart put through the wringer with this book, and I wasn’t wrong. Charlie Cochrane warns, without too many spoilers that it’s a “three hanky read” and she’s not wrong. So if you aren’t a fan of angst, then stay away! There are hints in the blurb about the outcome, so don’t despair.

It is a brave thing that Cochrane does to build up characters and relationships over seven books only to tear it all down in the eighth–but it’s entirely right to do so because of the setting and the events that happened from 1914-1919. The book is set after the end of the Great War–the other great lie, that it was the “War to End All War”–and it’s all the shattered Britain can hang onto, because that’s the only thing that helps them make sense of what seems four years of senseless slaughter. To make things worse, many people who escaped being killed on the battlefield, including wives, husbands and children were wiped out in the influenza epidemic of 1919, further reducing an already battered population.

So we know from the outset—and from the blurb, that loved ones have been lost, although it’s more than the blurb hints at, so steel yourself for sadness.

Orlando’s reaction is entirely right. The Orlando from books 1 to about 3 would probably have retreated entirely within his mind and never come out again, but Jonty’s influence remains strong with him, and he’s able to cope on a day-to-day level  as long as he doesn’t allow himself to think too deeply—and that’s something a gentleman wouldn’t let himself do in public.  His initial interview with his—and Jonty’s—old friend Matthew Ainslie is perfectly pitched. What they can talk about and what they can’t, the feeling of unbearable, but gentlemanly repression. The way Ainslie has kept obituaries from the paper “in case you wanted to see them” and the way that Orlando takes them without reading them in public. This skill of writing shows a writer who completely understands, not only her characters, but the mindset of middleclass and upperclass England of 1919.

I’d definitely say to prospective readers of the series–don’t start with this one. That probably sounds unnecessary to say, but some readers will start at the end or in the middle of a series, but to get the full flavour out of this, you will need to get some of the backstory under your belt, because the impact won’t be anything like as powerful otherwise, and you’ll need to know who’s who–it might leave you feeling a little confused otherwise.

Here’s one part which had me sobbing like a baby:

Their eventual parting had been so painful, preceded as it was by snatched nights of shared passion and tender longeurs—giving and receiving each other’s bodies, lying in one another’s arms without speaking, reacquainting themselves with every inch of each other, lest they be parted. Lest they might then forget. The last meeting, on a crowded railway station, had been almost wordless, from both necessity of discretion and aching in their hearts. They had shaken hands, exchanged notes and gone off into the smoky night. And each note had been almost identical.

I love you. Do not forget me. Love again if I don’t return.

I think we all know (without spoiling, because Cochrane has advertised widely for her readers to “Just TRUST her”) that the story must end well, and we also know that Cochrane wouldn’t do that to her readers—it would probably be romance suicide to do it, but even so the pathos of this story hits hard. The bequest to honey-buzzards will resonate with readers only who have read the earlier books, and the tender way Jonty  is discussed and remembered will make even the hardest hearted of us well up with emotion.

I’ve already spoken about the characterisation being pitch-perfect, and you never need to worry about Cochrane’s historical detail. She makes me laugh, actually, as from time to time something jars with me and I gleefully trot to the etymology dictionary only to discover that she’s spot on—one example was “foxhole”—i had thought this was a later term, but no, I should have known better, it was coined in WW1. The thing with a book like this is that you actually forget that you are reading something written in the 21st century. It’s so immersive, you just lose yourself within it, whether you are strolling along the seafront of Caborg or having a pint in the Holloway Road.

There was a little too much cosy chat too for me which lost my concentration at times, but I know that this will be the main draw for lovers of previous books.

I also felt that Orlando’s “sleuthing” was a little too easy in spots—coincidence plays a part and he only has to say something out loud for one of the porters to say “oh I know where you can find that out, guv’nor.” And he not only finds the man he needs in a neighbouring college but the details of one man in all of the war. Coincidence plays a large part in the remaining plot, and I’d complain more strongly about that had Cochrane not made this a feature in the previous books. I can live with it in a cozy novella, it’s almost part of the genre.

I wouldn’t say that this is the strongest in the series because it’s not as strong on sleuthing as the others—and I would have liked a little more mystery to balance the Jonty—Orlando plotline, but it breaks the mould in good ways. The whole arching story—whether or not this book will be the last Cambridge Fellows book or not—is compelling and sweet, although nicely toned in light and shade. This last book shows us that Cochrane is more than capable of stepping well outside the cosy mystery and dealing with the most disturbing of subjects, war, shellshock, duty and death—and of doing it every bit as well as writers such as Pat Barker or Susan Field. Bring hankies with you when you read it, but read it. It will touch you in many good ways.

Title is an ebook only at the moment but will be moving to paperback in a few months.

Buy at Samhain Amazon UK Kindle Amazon USA Kindle

Review: The Framing of Dorian Gray by Barry Lowe

Sherlock Holmes is called in on one of his most personal cases ever when his young nephew, Bramwell, disappears. Has he been kidnapped by his own father and forced to marry against his nature or is something more sinister afoot? In his search for answers Holmes and Watson will cross swords with the angelically beautiful Dorian Gray and be forced among degenerates and rapists at Soho’s notorious Pandemonium Club. But the truth is more evil than anyone could have suspected.

Review by Erastes

This is a shift in my thinking, because I’m not a great fan of published fanfiction, be it out of copyright or not–so I want to be upfront about that. However, I’m going to review this for other merits than accordance with canon etc. Although having read all of Holmes, I’m not that familiar with the canon to do that. Also, I’m aware that it’s a literary tradition for some authors to change or embellish the canon, in this case giving Holmes a sister, so this makes it Alternative Universe fanfiction, I suppose. And although it has a paranormal aspect–the inclusion of Dorian Gray’s portrait–I’m including this on the list, as we have Wilde’s original book listed.

That’s that out of the way, let’s get on with it.

It actually starts quite well, and even if you had never read a Holmes story, you would be able to pick this up and not mind. It cleverly sets the scene and the modicum of back-story (with the additional relatives) without resorting to pages of tub-thumbing Basil Exposition and it’s deftly done.

I liked the language that Watson writes in, it’s archaic enough to be easily understandable, and gives a nice flavour. It may be a little too flowery for some, but then that “some” is unlikely to pick up a Holmesian piece and expect it to be in contemporary prose.

The editing, I’m afraid, left a lot to be desired–with wanton apostrophes, missing and also unnecessary commas, spelling mistakes, a weighty surfeit of epithets and some tenses getting tangled up around each other’s legs. I’m a little grammar-blind at the best of times, so if I noticed errors, I’m sure there were a lot more. I have not reviewed anything from this publisher before, so I hope that it’s not a feature.

I think it is the fanfic aspect that makes these books a difficult read for me, because I have to  rely on the author to get Holmes and others right. In an original book, if the main characters behave with derring- do or are amused or outraged at certain things, then I think little of it, because it’s their characters and they can do with them what they wish, but with Holmes (and the other myriad of spin-offs now proliferating the market) I find myself thinking “Would Lizzie/Darcy/Holmes/[insert name here] really behave like that? And I find myself doing this for inconsequential things like [character] chuckling, instead of being able to just relax and enjoy the story unfolding.

However, that being said – it did draw me in, and it felt like a real Holmesian caper, complete with grotesques and dodgy venues, many cab journeys and Watson fumbling around in the dark both physically and mentally.

This is not a “gay Holmes” by the way, for which I was actually grateful, but a Holmes story involving gay matters which struck me as much more realistic, despite the book’s other problems.

I didn’t see anything of Holmes’ skills, though, none of the “I can tell you are a Polish sailor who spent some time in Africa and you have two wives, one in Madagascar and the other died a year ago.” This was a shame, because that’s what draws people to Holmes, I would think. Overall he was a little bit jolly, laughing, chortling and throwing his arms around people.

The final action scene concerns a brutal rape, so be warned—and I didn’t like that it was played a little for titillation. This probably explains why this otherwise pretty good read hadn’t been picked up by one of the larger epubs, as they probably wouldn’t have allowed the rape scene to stay as written.

One or two misuses of words I spotted “erstwhile brothers” (referring to Mycroft and Sherlock) when they were hardy “former” brothers. “Queer” wasn’t used for another fifty years or so, but in the main, the research is pretty good—streets are where they should be, and buildings existed at the time. But nothing too jarring, and as I say, the research is decent.

Seeing as how Holmes isn’t very “Holmesy” this could easily have been converted to original fiction without much of a join, but it’s a pretty good read if you can skim over the dreadful editing. If you are fan of the Victorian detective genre,then you’ll probably enjoy this. I would give the story a 4 stars but the presentation a 2, so overall, it gets a solid 3.

Buy from Loveyoudivine

Review: Suffer the Little Children by Tracy Rowan

When Victorian private investigator Nick Romney’s step-father, an Anglican bishop, is murdered, Nick refuses to get involved. At the urging of his family, though, Nick and his lover Davy step in to investigate. Together they uncover the truth of the bishop’s involvement in the dark and horrifying world of child prostitution, the reason why he was killed, and the shocking identity of the murderer.

Review by Erastes

The set up sounds familiar, a detective in fin-de-siecle Europe, but this isn’t really a Holmes homage. The author freely admits that she was inspired by Holmes:

“The initial inspiration was Sherlock Holmes and I jumped right to the idea of a gay Victorian detective and let the characters define the story, which they were quite happy to do.”

but the characters are nicely different from Holmes and Watson, or at least the Holmes and Watson I like to imagine, as I’ve never been part of that fandom. Nick, when Davy meets him, is a lab assistant–not some kind of genius and Davy is a bit of a wastrel, so it’s a far enough remove from “doctor and private detective”. I suppose I just wish that someone would do more than just Victorian detectives. It’s not like they didn’t exist.

The first kiss between the two was rather baffling, I didn’t see why it happened the way it did, and I felt it was a little abrupt – and frankly idiotic of Davy as he could have been in serious trouble. Nick hadn’t given him any encouragement and they’d hardly met more than thirty seconds. Similarly their proper first meeting and conversation was relayed in a tell-not-show manner -we are told they “sat and talked” until interrupted by Davy’s father.  And then Davy says this:

I was sent from the room for the duration of the interview, but I loitered in the waiting room because I didn’t want Romney to disappear from my life without at least trying to find out where he lived. Though I was no innocent, I had never felt such an attraction to another man before. It made all my previous dalliances seem inconsequential. However Nicholas Romney had stirred something in me that no one else had ever before touched, and I was anxious to explore all these new feelings.

The thing is–other than an impetuous kiss–we haven’t had any reason to suspect that Davy was madly attracted to Nick–nor are we given the reasons why, so I felt a little short changed. First meetings, first conversations, first attractions–like first sex–should always be described, even briefly. It was like leaving the cinema for a couple of minutes to get an icecream, only to find upon your return that the bunny has already been boiled.

I did like Davy’s family’s reaction to the fact that he was sharing rooms with Nick–his father seems to suspect their relationship, and it’s probable that his mother at least wouldn’t have been able to put words to what their relationship was, so maybe didn’t suspect. His brother deals with it by not dealing with it, and his sister is madly curious. It made his family decent (although probably quite unrealistic) without really breaching the OKHOMO barrier.  Similarly, the jump from his father being dismissive and disappointed with Davy, to this statement:

I knew he was a loving man,

was never truly explored. It’s often the way with books I like, though–I want all of the book, including all the things that can’t be fitted into 170 or so pages.

We are soon into familiar territory,a murder, a possible miscarriage of justice and things to investigate. One might say that Nick has similar methods to a certain detective living in Baker Street, but we can’t really blame him for that, methods are methods, after all.

Character-wise, there’s some solid building here, and we quickly learn about Davy (who Nick calls Fitz) and Nick (who Davy sometimes refers to as Rom.) Nick has interesting idosyncracies which make him rather alluring (to me, anyway!) and that’s all as it should be. Who wants a normal detective, gay or otherwise?

What is a nice touch is that in this book, Holmes is fictional–and he even gets a mention when a corpse is proclaimed by Nick to be a brewer and it made me laugh:

I had only recently read a story entitled “A Study in Scarlet” about a fictional detective, and much as I had enjoyed it, I harbored the suspicion that Romney was twice the detective this other chap was and not nearly as annoying. “Is that all?” I asked.

“Do you want me to tell you the location of the brewery by sniffing the hops?”

I grew excited. “Can you do that?”

Rom rolled his eyes. “Good heavens Fitz, you read too much nonsense.”

“Well, I don’t know!” I snapped.

As Nick’s “storyteller”in the same way Watson was for Holmes, Davy has a good eye. He’s the narrator of the story–which is first person–and he gives you great details of the locations they encounter in their travels, rooms and furniture, streets and buildings all come to life as he describes them.

The story unfolds in a parallel fashion, with the most recent case with frequent flashbacks to the time they met, and Nick’s first case. I – being a bear of little brain and less concentration (specially with reading on the PC) found this distracting, and if I’m going to be picky I would have liked both stories as individual books rather than this method–but I know that it won’t bother most people so it’s not getting marked down for that. Nor for the cover which is very ugly.

It’s well-written and pacy–just how a mystery of this genre should be. Never a dull moment, in either plot-lines. The American spelling pissed me off a little bit, but it is probably a Torquere requirement, many publishers insist on it. I wish they wouldn’t for English set books. But spelling aside there were no other Americanisms that pulled me out of the immersive detail.

I should warn for themes which might offend–that of child abuse–but of course it is not described in any way, and the only references to it are those that disgust the characters involved, but I need to point this out, in case you won’t read anything with that theme.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and feel that I should knock a mark off for the double plot-line, (or due to the fact that we’ve reviewed three books this month with a five star rating) but both reasons would be unfair.This is a solid addition to the genre, well researched (very well researched, I should add) well written with a detective that I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of–and I hope we see more of Ms Rowan’s work in the gay historical field.

Author’s website

Buy at Torquere Press

Review: The House on Birdgate Alley by Anel Viz

London, 1889.

Dr. John Williams suspects somebody has been blackmailing one of his patients, Sir Hugh Cockburn. The same day, the body of a young man is found floating in the Thames. Mere coincidence, or is there a connection?

Willliams’ eccentric cousin, Cyril Fosterby, turns his mind to unraveling the mystery.

Review by Erastes

The trouble with writing victorian “maverick sleuths” in 1889 is that one can’t help but wonder that perhaps this is Holmes fanfic revisted and it does read rather like it. It’s unfortunate for the story if it isn’t, of course, but I’ve read a lot of converted Holmes fic. This is a story about a doctor called John–in late Victorian England with a cousin who’s an experimental scientist who solves cases and is a master of disguise…

For all that, though, Anel Viz proves he can turn his hand to the Victorian era with good effect – it’s a decent enough story and an enjoyable hour’s read.

There’s not much gaslight and gaiters, if you get my gist, not much description of the familiar post-Ripper London that we are used to, and it depends more on conversation and indoor scenes than dripping grey bricks and eerie fog over the Thames, but what is there is done all right.

What I found odd, though was everyone’s openness about homosexuality. Two young men at Cambridge kiss in front of Doctor Williams, and the brothel keeper talks openly to him about her employees, and admits having talked to the Health Board and the Police about them.

Now, this is 1889, four years after the dreaded “Labouchere Amendment” of the Sexual Offences Act which, in an attempt to clean up the prostitution, also targetted homosexuals whether or not they were in private or not. There is much in this book that entirely ignores this Amendment, which caused a sensation at the time, and drove homosexual men underground.  In fact the Cambridge man says:

As for a scandal, what Freddy and I do in private need not go beyond these four walls or whatever four walls happen to surround us at the moment.

Um. Very very wrong, and no-one corrects him either.  So I find it very strange that the madam of the brothel talks to anyone at all, let alone the police the health board and John Williams.

I can’t say that I was impressed by Fosterby’s reasoning regarding the original blackmail note, in the same way I was often impressed by Holmes–he doesn’t really give me enough reasons to suspect that Sir Hugh was an “invert” – rather presented it as a fait-a-complis rather than “these are my reasons and there is no other explanation.”

I loved the working class Johnny Rice, his cheeky attitude and sexual enjoyment really lit up the page (even if I couldn’t stand the dialect written out) and he was quite my favourite character. I couldn’t warm to Dr John Williams as he abhored everything about the sex trade, said how he disliked cocks and anuses in particular and then suddenly PING he’s homosexual for Johnny, seduced by the power of the cock in the same way that the also married Sir Hugo had been too.

However, if you are expecting a Holmesian tale with tortious twists and clues scattered to find and pick up, then you are going to be disappointed, because the story serves only really as a vehicle for John and Johnny to hook up and for John to realise that he’s not faithful to his wife.

There really was not enough of the so-called “eccentric” cousin, the detective figure. We don’t find out why he was considered eccentric, we don’t learn his methods and in fact we only meet him a handful of times and we learn nothing much when we do.All detecting is done off stage and is wrapped up neatly after John and Johnny spend a lot of time together and fall in love.  However Fosterby explains all the dectecting he’d been doing at the end.  This is well explained, and works, but I think I would have preferred more involvement from Williams.

It has a nicely realistic ending, and sets itself for sequels. I did enjoy the story as a whole, despite the OK Homo aspects and lack of historical fear, and I’ll be looking out for further books if there are any.

Buy at Silver Publishing

Review: Lessons In Trust by Charlie Cochrane

He thought he knew who he was. Now he’s a stranger to himself.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 7

When Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith witness the suspicious death of a young man at the White City exhibition in London, they’re keen to investigate—especially after the cause of death proves to be murder. But police Inspector Redknapp refuses to let them help, even after they stumble onto clues to the dead man’s identity.

Review by Erastes

As you will know, if you are a regular reader of this blog, or any other m/m review site, The Cambridge Fellows series starring Orlando Coppersmith and Jonty Stewart has been a seven book series published by Samhain. This is the last in this set of books from Samhain. I won’t say “this is the last ever appearance from the boys” because I know that Charlie Cochrane is hoping to write at least one more, but that’s not in her contract for the seven books she’s done with them so far.

The series has been almost uniformly excellent—I’ve asked different people to review the books as they were released, to try and instil some fairness, but that didn’t make any difference, quality is quality and The Cambridge Fellow Series has been loved by one and all.

So it will be no surprise to you to hear that Lessons In Trust doesn’t waver one iota in that regard.

The story kicks off with the boys on vacation, staying with the Stewarts.  It’s 1908 and The White City ( a hundred acre site holding the Franco-British Exhibition) has just opened, and the boys are enjoying it every day. And it’s there that the murder mystery begins.

One gets used to the fact that, when a detective (or a couple of them in this case) are on the loose anywhere at all, wherever they go, they are bound to discover a murder. You would be a very stupid person to invite Hercule Poirot to your dinner party, and if I’d seen him entering a train or plane or boat I was on, I’d ask to change my passage to another day.  What Cochrane does is play with that that trope sufficiently to make a nice difference. When they do see the murder, they don’t realise that it is one, and rather than being encouraged to help with the enquiry, they are positively ordered away from it but a wonderful minor character, a policeman who insults the amateur detectives at every available opportunity.

Despite the novella length of this book, Cochrane packs a lot in. Not only do the doughty pair have the challenge of a baffling murder, but one of them has a crisis in his personal life which causes a real rift between the two of them.  I think it was this section that was the only part of the book I didn’t really get. At this point of their relationship, when they’d been through so much–I didn’t understand Orlando’s actions at all. However, it is written entirely in character, so it didn’t jar me – I wasn’t sitting there thinking “he wouldn’t have done that,” – rather “I thought you loved him more.”

As usual, the plot is nicely obscure for the fan of the mystery genre and as usual, there are some wonderful character portraits within the book, and people who love Jonty and Orlando’s gentle and sweet interractions won’t be disappointed.

I can’t mark this with any less than five stars, the weight of the series behind it, and the unfailing quality of the writing, the characterisation and the plotting won’t let me.

Buy at Samhain

Review: Lessons in Temptation by Charlie Cochrane

He thinks he has everything. Until someone tries to steal it.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 5

For friends and lovers Orlando Coppersmith and Jonty Stewart, a visit to Bath starts out full of promise. While Orlando assesses the value of some old manuscripts, Jonty plans to finish his book of sonnets. Nothing exciting…until they are asked to investigate the mysterious death of a prostitute.

Then Orlando discovers that the famous curse of Macbeth extends far beyond the stage. It’s bad enough that Jonty gets drawn into a local theatre’s rehearsals of the play. The producer is none other than Jimmy Harding, a friend from Jonty’s university days who clearly finds his old pal irresistible. Worse, Jimmy makes sure Orlando knows it, posing the greatest threat so far to their happiness.

With Jonty involved in the play, Orlando must do his sleuthing alone. Meanwhile, Jonty finds himself sorely tempted by Jimmy’s undeniable allure. Even if Orlando solves the murder, his only reward could be burying his and Jonty’s love in an early grave…

Review by Erastes

I think I’m going to have to either go round to Charlie Cochrane’s house and stop her from writing anything else, or stop reviewing her books on the site because it’s becoming embarrassing as to how much we all like them.  I even get different reviewers to review them, but it makes no difference.  We all love ‘em, and that’s no exception with this book.

First of all, let me advise you that, as the blurb hints, these books are part of a series.  (I’ve even made a category now, to make them easier to find.) However, they are so skilfully written that they can easily be read as a standalone, and Cochrane manages this (somehow) without any infodumping and pages of “this is what happened in previous books.”  There is enough information, woven in with a deft hand, to tell you who these guys are, what they do, a touch of their previous adventures and that’s it.  And that’s excellent, because they are only 100 pages or so, so the last thing you need is 20 pages of info thrown at you.

That being said, despite the fact that they can be read as standalones, you’ll be depriving yourself if you read them out of turn, or only read one in the series.  There’s an over-reaching arc to the series, and with a romance, that’s a difficult thing to achieve.  After the happy ending of the first book you’d think that there would be nothing else to tell about the characters. Well, you’d be wrong. So wrong.

Cochrane must have had the same grandmother as mine, (“keep some mystery, dear!”) or be related to Gypsy Rose Lee or something because she knows just how to string her readers along, and each book–like the best burlesque dancer–reveals a little more about these characters, a little more of their backstory–sometimes to their own detriment.  What’s great about Jonty and Orlando is that, despite being deliciously affectionate with each other and really and truly soul-mates, something you never doubt–they are both rather flawed young men.  Part of this comes from their pasts, both have a little darkness they are fighting with, and part of this comes from the necessary unworldliness (Orlando more so than Jonty, but all academics have a particular oddness) that living in a secluded community like a Cambridge College will bring.

The books could easily be a mish mash of schmoop and sentiment, as the men are delightfully sweet with each other (when all is going well and they are in private) but there’s always a tinge of that dark hiding behind them.  Orlando is racked with guilt that he hasn’t been able to help Jonty deal with the terrors of his school years, and Jonty’s incandescent temper often threatens the subtle thread between them. And they never let their guard down, always aware of what discovery of their love would mean.

Ok – so on with this book specifically.  Straight away we are led into Jonty and Orlando’s world. This time they are working away on location in Bath. What I love about Cochrane’s work is that she uses locations that she knows and loves. Places she’s been regularly–like Jersey in Lessons in Desire–and can describe in all weathers and moods.   Bath is a Regency staple, of course, but it was nice to see it 100 years later, and see the differences.

As the title implies, there’s temptation on the menu in the form of the deliciously handsome bundle of gorgeousness, Jimmy Harding.  An American who has an earlier friendship with Jonty.  Orlando hates him at first sight, which causes friction, but then Jimmy makes it more than clear to Orlando that he’s going to make a direct play for Jonty and the sparks begin to fly.  You don’t come to the Cambridge Fellow’s books for the sex, by the way, the love scenes are veiled and shrouded in imagery, but none the less emotive for that.  The themes of love vs sex and loyalty vs temptation are well explored too; there were times I wanted to kill Jonty, I have to say.

This alone would be more than enough plot for most people, particularly in a novella of this size, but Cochrane isn’t that complacent.  Her guys are detectives and so not only do they have to cope with the danger of Jimmy Harding, but to solve the 25 year old murder of a prostitue that seemingly no-one or everyone about.   The mystery is a good “cold case” with no-one being entirely truthful or complete in their information with the two detectives, red herrings and blind alleys galore, which should satisfy the lovers of the genre.  If I have one niggle in this respect it’s simply my doubt that any prostitute would turn down any offer of marriage to a wealthy and respectable man on the chance that she might land another.

Cochrane’s writing style is subtly omniscient at times, which I happen to like a lot, but it may not appeal to those who prefer a tight third person point of view which never veers from one person at a time.  I think it suits the tone and the setting of the books, however.

Highly recommended and I look forward to the next book enormously.  I just need to find another reviewer–however if the standard continues this high, I’m sure they’ll love number six in the series as much as I loved one to five.

This being published by Samhain, the ebook is available now, with a wait of around a year for the print edition.

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Review: Lessons In Power by Charlie Cochrane

The ghosts of the past will shape your future. Unless you fight them.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 4

Cambridge, 1907

After settling in their new home, Cambridge dons Orlando Coppersmith and Jonty Stewart are looking forward to nothing more exciting than teaching their students and playing rugby. Their plans change when a friend asks their help to clear an old flame who stands accused of murder.

Doing the right thing means Jonty and Orlando must leave the sheltering walls of St. Bride’s to enter a labyrinth of suspects and suspicions, lies and anguish.

Their investigation raises ghosts from Jonty’s past when the murder victim turns out to be one of the men who sexually abused him at school. The trauma forces Jonty to withdraw behind a wall of painful memories. And Orlando fears he may forever lose the intimacy of his best friend and lover.

When another one of Jonty’s abusers is found dead, police suspicion falls on the Cambridge fellows themselves. Finding this murderer becomes a race to solve the crime…before it destroys Jonty’s fragile state of mind.

Review by T J Pennington

This book contains the best warning label I’ve ever seen: Warning: Contains sensual m/m lovemaking and hot men playing rugby.

I freely admit that I have not read the first three books of the Cambridge Fellows Mysteries and that I know nothing about rugby. That said, I was relieved to discover that you don’t need to have read the previous mysteries or to be a rugby fan to comprehend–or, indeed, to savor–this book.

The story starts in February 1907 at St. Bride’s College, Cambridge, when Matthew Ainslie, a professor at University College London, comes to his friend and fellow professor Jonty Stewart, asking him (and, by extension, Jonty’s lover, Orlando) to investigate a murder. The suspect? Alistair Stafford, Matthew’s old lover–and more recently, his blackmailer. Complicating matters is the fact that Stafford was in Jardine’s company shortly before the murder, that they had exchanged words concerning the way Jardine had treated Stafford’s sister, and that Stafford had threatened Jardine’s life. Nevertheless, Matthew has heard Stafford’s story, and while he knows that Stafford is both vengeful and spiteful and is quite capable of crime, he honestly doesn’t believe that the man is guilty of this crime. And he isn’t willing to stand by and let Stafford hang for something he didn’t do.

The murder victim–and I found this to be an artful touch–is no more a sympathetic character than Stafford is. He is, or was, Lord Christopher Jardine, one of those who sexually abused Jonty Stewart at school–in fact, the first one who raped him. Of all the people in the world, Jonty has the least reason to care who smashed in Jardine’s head…and the most cause to celebrate.

But he does not. Like Matthew, Jonty is an honorable man who believes in doing his duty, even if he finds it unpleasant. “I wouldn’t want his killer going free just because the victim was such a toerag,” he says to Orlando. “Truth above all, it has to be so.”

Yet at the same time, he’s deeply conflicted; his memories of the rape and torture he underwent at school are a torment, both physically and psychologically. “I can tell myself we’re serving justice and that I don’t want Matthew’s friend unfairly convicted,” he says a bit later. “But when it comes to it—when we have the man or woman in our grasp—I have no idea how I’ll react.” And he prays to the Lord Almighty for help, saying that he knows he’s supposed to forgive those who have sinned against him, but that this feels impossible.

I think that it was at that point that I started to love Jonty. I cannot resist flawed but honorable characters who will do what is right even if it hurts. Given the popularity of antiheroes, such protagonists are not easy to find.

The investigation–which has to be carefully timed to take place on weekends and holidays, the only times that Drs. Stewart and Coppersmith aren’t working, a detail that both amused and pleased me–then begins…with the assistance of Jonty’s brother and father, who, respectively, share a club and a Savile Row tailor with the victim.

(It’s worth noting that though Jonty’s parents are aware of his relationship with Orlando, Orlando himself–after four books–is only just beginning to build some kind of relationship with his lover’s father and seems a bit overwhelmed by Jonty’s mother. Despite the fact that the Stewarts are nice people who love their son and want him to be happy, and despite the fact that Orlando likes the Stewarts, things are both amiable and a little awkward. I liked that; it was positive and yet believable.)

The early evidence, unfortunately, doesn’t so much favor Stafford as indicate that others might have wanted Jardine either dead or permanently blackmailed. Another man who’d helped Jardine rape and torture younger boys at school says that he wanted to confess what they’d done, while Jardine did not. The two men argued loudly enough for anyone inclined toward extortion to hear them. Stafford’s sister let herself be seduced by Jardine, thinking that he would marry her, and was furious when he refused to do so. Finally, Jardine had at least one unidentified visitor on the night of his death.

In addition to the mystery, a number of other things take place–a rugby match between the English department and the mathematics department at Cambridge; confrontations between Jonty and Timothy Taylor (Jonty’s second rapist and one of the chief suspects in Jardine’s death); seductions and attempted seductions by Orlando; and Jonty suffering flashbacks due to what we’d probably call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And that’s before there’s a second murder…which brings Jonty and Orlando under the scrutiny of the police.

I must mention that an American reading this book may trip over a couple of phrases–not because of any flaw in the writing, but because Americans probably won’t recognize rugby slang. I wished, more than once, that there was a rugby glossary in the back of the book; there were many times when it would have helpful. For example, when I read this sentence:

…a cannonball came flying across the field to take him, itself and the ball firmly into touch.

Orlando was winded, the rugby ball flew away, then the cannonball got up with a big grin all over its gob and said, “Sorry, Dr. Coppersmith, don’t know my own strength,” without meaning a word of it.

Now, the problem with this passage is that I don’t know what a cannonball is in this context, though I presume it’s a rugby term. So I was picturing an English football flying down the field and hitting Orlando in the stomach like, well, a cannonball. I was a bit thrown, therefore, when the cannonball turned out to be a person…albeit one described as having a grin all over ITS gob rather than HIS.

However, this is quite a minor detail; the book overall was excellent. One of the most delightful things about this book is that despite the fact that there is plenty of tension and despite Jonty having plenty of reason to be frightened and unhappy, the characters retain their sense of humor–even under the most trying circumstances. For example, while talking to one of the men who connived at the sexual abuse of a number of young boys at Jonty’s school, Orlando, irate on Jonty’s behalf and frustrated beyond words, thinks: I’ll kill him now and make it look like his aunt was responsible. Which is such wry and Saki-like statement and such an implausible scenario–the aunt in question being elderly, proper, and a tad dotty–that it surprised me into laughing.

Finally, I must mention the cover. The cover by Scott Carpenter is truly beautiful–an image of a young man gazing at an old-fashioned classroom, and underneath that, a realistic sketch of a college with the legend “A Cambridge Fellows Mystery.” The cover is washed in sepia tones, but with color accents and shadows in key places that make both the classroom scene and the sketch of the college at Cambridge both more vivid and more solid. All in all, the art deftly hints at some of the plot, one of the main characters, the importance of the setting and the genre of the tale while stating, “I am a good, solid, classy book. You would be proud to be seen reading me.”

I give it five stars, and wish that the book had been longer.

Author’s website

chauncey-gay-new-york3

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ebook available now, paperback version in around 9 months.

Review: Lessons In Desire by Charlie Cochrane

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 2

With the recent series of college murders behind him, Cambridge Fellow Jonty Stewart is in desperate need of a break. A holiday on the beautiful Channel Island of Jersey seems ideal, if only he can persuade Orlando Coppersmith to leave the security of the college and come with him. Orlando is a quiet man who prefers academic life to venturing out into the world.

Within the confines of their rooms at the university, it’s easy to hide the fact that he and Jonty are far more than friends. But the desire to spend more time alone with the man he loves is an impossible lure to resist. When a brutal murder occurs at the hotel where they’re staying, the two young men are once more drawn into the investigation. The race to catch the killer gets complicated by the victim’s son, Ainslie, a man who seems to find Orlando too attractive to resist. Can Stewart and Coppersmith keep Ainslie at bay, keep their affair clandestine, and solve the crime?

Review by Erastes

I have to say I dislike romance blurbs with questions, because due to the restrictions on a HEA, the answer is pretty much answerable at the first page, but that wasn’t going to stop me enjoying Charlie Cochrane’s second outing with her Cambridge Fellows, as I had enjoyed book one immensely.

Right from the word go she had me hooked, as Jonty and Orlando’s banter made me smile–I love the way that Orlando is shocked at the very idea of going AWAY for a holiday–and how Jonty loves to tease him. After all, the man nearly freaked out at eating outside of Hall in the first book.

Jersey then, seems a very suitable compromise. English enough to be reassuringly familiar, but with enough of a tang of France to give a flavour of being “abroad.”

The charm of Cochrane’s writing, specifically with this series, is not reliant on action, gun fights, car chases and explosions, but takes you back to a time where life was slower, where you changed for each meal, where life was regulated by the gong, manners and polite conversation.  Cochrane does this so beautifully that to there are scents of such classics as Rattigan’s Seperate Tables or The Raj Quartet. (Both would have been improved with a repressed gay love affair of course.)

Their time on the beach brought tears to my eyes, to be honest, because I was raised by the seaside and I miss doing all those simple things like throwing seaweed, exploring rock-pools and terrorising crabs. Cochrane knows her Jersey, having been there many times, and the scents and the sounds of the place fairly bounce from the page.

I love the humour in Cochrane’s work too, Jonty often puts his foot in it, causing Orlando to storm off in a huff, it’s gentle, English humour but it made me giggle a lot, and I had a smile on my face for a lot of this book. Orlando’s reactions to Ainslie’s attempted seduction was priceless.

All this and a murder mystery too, which I’m saying nothing about in case I spoil it.

What I like about the series is that Cochrane doesn’t give us everything at once. Orlando is like a nervous virgin–and although he’s participated in much with Jonty he hasn’t consummated their love affair entirely. More of the men’s backstory is revealed and slowly the relationship takes tiny steps forward, or perhaps three steps forward and a couple back.  Readers coming to the Cambridge Fellows wanting pages of graphic monkey sex will be disappointed, but readers who enjoy a slow burn and exquisite knife-edge sexual tension will appreciate it hugely.  Cochrane can do no wrong.

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Review: Black Butterfly by Mark Gatiss

With Queen Elizabeth newly established on her throne, the now elderly secret agent is reaching the end of his scandalous career. Despite his fast-approaching retirement, queer events leave Box unable to resist investigating one last case…Why have pillars of the Establishment started dying in bizarrely reckless accidents? Who are the deadly pay-masters of enigmatic assassin Kingdom Kum? And who or what is the mysterious Black Butterfly? From the seedy streets of Soho to the souks of Istanbul and the sun-drenched shores of Jamaica, Box must use his artistic licence to kill and eventually confront an enemy with its roots in his own notorious past. Can Lucifer Box save the day before the dying of the light?

I’m leaving Lucifer Box’s second installment (The Devil in Amber) on The List, but I’m not going to review it, because it’s rather too paranormal. However this is more spy-like with no paranormal aspects, so it fits the bill.

Like The Devil In Amber, this book jumps forward in time, and we meet Lucifer at the end of his career. He’s feeling a bit sorry for himself and mourning his lost youth (and he’s worked his way through quite a few of those in his life, let’s be honest)  and feeling a bit of an old crock. It doesn’t help when the equivalent of Miss Moneypenny, tells him that she prefers firm cock, when he tries to chat her up.

However, you don’t keep Lucifer Box down for long. Following a trip to his favourite sleazy watering hole he’s off on the trail of the beautiful and exotic Kingdom Kum (yes, really, the names are part of the enormous fun of this series of books). The trail leads him all the way around the world and back again, and pretty soon, despite his aging limbs and failing eyesight, Box is back on form, and I’m very happy to say that he ends the series on an “up” as it were and a jaw dropping moment.

I thoroughly enjoyed this installment, in fact I thoroughly enjoyed all three books. Box is a thorough reprobate and you can’t help but love him to pieces, because an unrepentant anti-hero is such a delicious rarity.

If you love puns and silly humour, if you love James Bond but think that Bond definitely misses out on a lot of action by ignoring bell-hops, rent boys and the like, then you will love Lucifer Box.  Give him a go.  I’m only sorry that Gatiss has only done three. It’s a clever plot to do them in three different eras (Edwardian, 1920s and 1950s) but I hope that he’s tempted to go back and fill us in on some of the cases that Lucifer teases us with – because I for one want MORE please!

Lucifer’s website

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Review: Paragon of Animals by J S Cook

A year after serial killer John Whittaker’s reign of terror was brought to a swift and righteous conclusion, London finds her streets darkened with the blood of innocents once again. Disfigured bodies with vile, ritualistic markings are turning up at an alarming rate, and the police are at a loss to apprehend the killer, who always seems to be one step ahead of them. Detective Inspector Phillip Devlin of Scotland Yard is having problems of his own. Having fallen for his younger constable, Freddie Collins, Devlin finds that leading his double life is often more complicated than he’d originally thought. But for now he must set aside his worries, as he is called on once more to catch a killer and expose the perpetrator of this latest threat to his beloved city.

Review by Erastes

This is the sequel to A Cold Blooded Scoundrel which I reviewed last year.  I was a little trepidatious setting out with this book, because I’d been disappointed with the ending of Scoundrel, but Paragon of Animals picks up the ball from Scoundrel and doesn’t disappoint at all.

Inspector Devlin, a man more set in his ways than someone mired in concrete,  is having to deal with a great deal of change. Not only is he now living with the nice-but-dim Freddie Collins, (“for reasons of economy” as he repeats to anyone who suspects him of something worse) but he has a new boss, and worse, he’s being forced to move offices as Scotland Yard moves from the eponymous yard to the Norman Shaw building (where they reside today) at the Embankment.  Then he’s thrown yet another macabre and gruesome case that no-one else wants. Add to that rivalries with his peers, a friend gone missing, and Freddie who’s behaving oddly, life is stretching Devlin just as far as he can be stretched.

Devlin is a marvellous invention, and you may see glimpses of other notable detectives in his work, but he’s his own person for all that. What’s wonderful about him is that he’s entirely obsessed, a little like Samuel Vimes in the respect that he eats, sleeps and breathes his work–and when a case really occupies his mind, he finds it hard to see the world around him.  This makes him deliciously real and you find yourself wanting to thump him, because – like Vimes – it does his personal life no good at all.  He’s no Mary-Sue. He doesn’t look at cigar ash and know that it was dropped by a Chinaman returning from Shanghai with a parrot and a taste for peppermints. He just glares at cigar ash (again, like Vimes) and wishes clues were of more use.

The plot in this is much tighter than Scoundrel, and the ending particularly is much neater and works better for the genre.  Along the way, Ms Cook drags all kind of scents across our path, beautiful and dangerous renters, macabre women with filed, pointed teeth, child abusers and clubs of very questionable taste. Like all good detective stories (and believe me, BOTH Scoundrel and Paragon are just that, good detective stories) you’ll not guess the culprit and are likely at the end to be wondering about many loose ends that aren’t tied up.

I actually like this approach, because 1. I know the author is planning more in this series and 2. because that’s life. Life isn’t neatly tied up, and although several of the murders are solved – there are things left for us to ponder about, and if I’m still pondering about a book days after finishing it, then that’s a big success for me. It also leaves things open for books to come, which makes me happy too.

Let me put a big read flag out here, because it has to be emphasized. THIS IS NOT A ROMANCE. So take that on board, and all it implies. Be warned.

Cook’s research is impeccable, it’s hard to believe that she’s not English, and it’s even harder to believe that she doesn’t live in 1890 London. Her depth of description (often very visceral, and loaded with sights and smells) is impressive and you are never jolted out of that dark, miserable city that Devlin inhabits.

I wouldn’t say it’s entirely necessary to have read Scoundrel before reading this, but you’ll probably enjoy this more if you did. But it can be read as a standalone.

If you like Victorian murder mysteries, I’m sure you’ll like this. Annoyingly, there are no copies – other than second hand – from UK Amazon but I recommend that it’s worth hunting down if you can.

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Review: The Secret Tunnel by James Lear

Handsome, muscular Edward “Mitch” Mitchell is back in this steamy send-up of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express, traveling from Edinburgh to London for a reunion with his ex, “Boy” Morgan. All aboard the Flying Scotsman for a ride that’s anything but smooth, as Mitch discovers his fellow travelers include Belgian power bottom Bertrand, sleazy starlet Daisy Athenasy and her butch publicist, Peter Dickinson. Add to the recipe a group of kilt-wearing soldiers, some very accommodating railway workers and a dead body tumbling out of the toilet, ant you have a magical mix of comedy, mystery and non-stop sex.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

The time: Winter 1928. The place: Aboard the Flying Scotsman as Edward “Mitch” Mitchell makes his way from Edinburgh to London to attend the christening of Harry “Boy” Morgan’s firstborn child, a daughter, for whom Mitch is to be the godfather. The events: murder, madcap mayhem, amateur sleuthing, silliness, and sex. Lots and lots of sex.

And that, in a nutshell, is The Secret Tunnel. It is not exactly a sequel to The Back Passage, but author Lear does bring back two characters, Mitch and Boy, and introduces a whole cast of colorful newcomers, including Bertrand Damseaux, who is supposed to vaguely remind readers of Hercule Poirot, just like The Flying Scotsman is supposed to remind us of The Orient Express. In other words, Lear uses lots of references to classic mysteries to set the mood.

When the story opens, we learn that Mitch has graduated from Cambridge and is now living in Edinburgh with his lover, Vince, and is in the final stages of completing his medical training. Mitch purports to be deeply in love with Vince, but that doesn’t stop him from having lustful thoughts about Boy Morgan, train conductors, porters, and lords, all before he is barely 18 steps away from his front door. Events have conspired so that Vince is unable to accompany Mitch on his journey; at first, Mitch is annoyed but being an optimistic sort, he remembers the adage, “Out of sight, out of mind,” and decides that having fun on his trip will be his number one objective.

He doesn’t waste any time, getting friendly with Arthur the porter, the mean train conductor, and the aforementioned Bertrand; then all of a sudden, Zut, alors! A body shows up in the first-class lavatory. Mitch is thrilled. Now, he gets to play Sherlock Holmes, Jr., too — his favorite hobby, second only to sexual activity in all its forms.

As a sleuth, Mitch’s primary detective tool seems to be his tool, which he uses to get men to open their mouths – and various other bodily crevices – to spill the beans. He isn’t terribly discriminating: even men who don’t have beans to spill get the treatment. At about the halfway point of the book, the story gets confusing. Why exactly is Mitch having sex with this guy? What exactly is he hoping to learn? Who is this guy, anyway?

The sex, fun as it is, becomes formulaic. I almost felt like the author had a checklist at his side to make sure every possible fantasy and fetish was covered. Sex with a man in uniform? Check. Sex with a man (or two) in a kilt? Check. Sex with lots of men at once? Check. Sex with Mitch tied up? Check. Sex with Mitch tied up and drugged? Check. You get the point.

I only kept reading because Lear is a good writer. The story is funny and fast and the writing is humorous, although the plot is totally implausible to the point of being preposterous. I got swept along in the current and kept flipping the pages, even if by the end I was flipping the pages to the point that I was mostly just skimming the words.

I read this back-to-back with The Back Passage and maybe that was a mistake because I kept comparing the two. The writing wasn’t any different and I don’t think the sex was any different either – but Mitch as a character was, and that was unsettling for me. In The Back Passage he was a college student visiting an English country estate for a holiday weekend (which happened to include finding a body in a closet). In The Secret Tunnel, school days are over and Mitch is supposed to be settling down to a career and a life with his beloved life partner. Boy, too, is married and a father and that gives Mitch momentary pause – but only momentary before he thinks about what he wants to do (and eventually does) with his former lover and friend. While I didn’t expect Mitch to become totally monogamous to the point of being a prude, his promiscuity with wild abandon was a tad too far to the other extreme for me to be totally comfortable with – especially since Mitch himself had some ambivalence about what he was doing.

Even more unsettling is the fact that Mitch realizes that what he likes best – to have sex with men – is an illegal activity. It comes up at the beginning: Mitch and Vince wear pajamas because they worry that the landlady might walk in and the sight of two naked men sleeping together could be grounds to call the police. Huh? That’s not the only instance. Mitch worries about drawn blinds, overheard cries of passion, and visible erections, any of which might have him hauled off to the clink and hung as a sodomite (never mind that the last time a sodomite was hung in England was 1835). Since the story is totally absurd, anyway, this slice of reality was intrusive and jarring and I am not sure it added to the narrative.

Would I recommend this book? It depends on what you want to read. I know many who consider Lear’s works to be “one handed novels” and if what you want is well written soft-core gay porn, it certainly fills the bill. On the other hand (excuse the pun!), if you are looking for a well written historical fiction story with a homoerotic subplot, I can think of many others I would suggest before this. While I am glad I discovered Lear as an author and I certainly enjoy Mitch as a character, I am not chomping at the bit for the third installment of this series, if one is planned.

Author’s website

Published by Cleis Press, Inc., publication date October 2008

ISBN: 978-1-57344-329-6

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Review: Oblivion by Harry J Maihafer

On Saturday, January 14, 1950, at 6:18PM, Cadet Richard Cox left his room at theU.S. Military Academy at West Point to goto dinner with an unidentified visitor. The man was supposedly someone Cox knew when he served in Germany. Cox never returned from that meeting.

Thirty five years later, a retired history teacher named Marshall Jacobs decided to pursue the mystery that had been a national story. Jacobs plunged into a labyrinthine search of Army and FBI records – and what began as a hobby became an obsession. After piecing together the puzzle for seven years, he found the one witness who enabled him to bring the case to closure.

Review by Erastes

An interesting find, this. The story was pointed out to me by a friend with a penchant for random surfing and it sparked my interest. I looked into it a little more and found this book which I promptly bought. I believe it’s out of print, but I picked up a copy for pennies.

Richard Cox is the only West Point Cadet ever to have disappeared without trace for for many years the American police, the Criminal Investigation Department and the FBI were involved in trying to track him down. It brings to mind just how easy it might have been (or might still be) to disappear in a country as large as the States.

But – did he disappear or was he murdered? The theories are thick and fast and the amount of threads that lead away from Cox’s last sighting are legion. The trail leads to New York gay bars, Washington spy masters, German secret missions and even behind the Iron Curtain.

There were a few questions I would have asked, however – why on Earth did West Point allow people on site that they didn’t know? Why didn’t this mysterious visitor give his full name and why didn’t anyone ask it? Why wasn’t a certain woman’s second marriage investigated? I suppose it was all a more innocent age – I bet that West Point is a little more rigorous in their security now.

The book was, for me, a real page turner – I had an idea from the reviews on Amazon that many people were not convinced or impressed by the Marshall’s conclusions – but that’s the great thing about conspiracy theories one can form one’s own and you are unlikely to be proven wrong.

I would like to think that – in these days of computers, networks, DNA testing and the like, that someone will – once again – pick up the enormous body of research compiled by Marshall since 1985 and seek out a more definitive answer, and proof that Marshall’s conclusion was the true one. Because I’d like to be sure what happened to Cox – it’s impossible not to want to know for sure by the end of the book.

Despite the labyrinthine tangle of facts, Maihafer catalogues the case well without too much irrelevancies and it kept me absorbed right until the very end. If you are a fan of cold cases, conspiracy theories and other subjects of that ilk – then you’ll probably enjoy this.

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Call for Submissions: A Study in Lavender

Editor Joseph R.G. DeMarco will be reading for a forthcoming Lethe
Press gay men’s anthology tentatively entitled A Study in Lavender:
Queering Holmes.

All stories must be both gay-themed and mysteries set in the Holmes
mythos, however the character of Sherlock Holmes need not be the focus
or even present.

Writers must do their homework to ensure that the stories are
historically accurate if taking place in the Holmes era (though tales
can be set later than the Victorian era, such as in the Golden Age of
Hollywood during the filming of a Holmes movie or other appropriately
familiar settings).

Before you submit, please query the editor with a synopsis of your
story and the content, specifically, which characters are being queered.

Word Count: Submissions should be between 1,000 words and 8,000 words.
Longer works may be considered but require advance permission from the
editor.

Payment: 2 cents a word, of course, plus 2 copies of the book.

Submissions will be read from January 1, 2009 through March 30, 2009.
Queries/Submissions to: holmesanthology@gmail.com

No electronic submissions will be accepted EXCEPT in the case of
writers living outside of the United States.

A street address for submissions will be provided once you send an
email query with the required synopsis, etc. If you would like to have
your submission returned, please send a self-addressed envelope with
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Review: The Alienist by Caleb Carr

New York City, 1896. A serial killer is on the loose, gruesomely preying upon cross-dressing boy prostitutes. Police detectives are making no progress solving the ghastly crimes. In fact, someone with power or influence seems to be bent on silencing witnesses and thwarting any investigation. Reform-minded police commissioner, and future president Theodore Roosevelt is determined to catch the killer and assembles an unconventional group of investigators headed by “alienist” Dr. Lazlo Kreizler. In the 19th century, when psychology was in its infancy, the mentally ill were considered “alienated” from themselves and society, and the experts who treated them were known as “alienists.”

Review by Erastes

A real meaty read this – about 500-600 pages in paperback and all of them worth reading, it gripped me from start to finish, and for my money it deserved its 25 weeks in the Publishers Weekly bestsellers chart.

It’s not a “gay historical” per se – none of the main characters are gay, but young male prostitutes are being killed so it does offer a fascinating insight into a culture that is not much written about.

What makes it compelling reading is the “serial profiling is in its infancy” (that and just about ALL the modern policing techniques that the team use, like fingerprinting, time of death and all the things CSI take for granted.)

It’s really gruesome, as would be expected. Carr doesn’t flinch from his descriptions, and of course anyone who watches modern crime dramas won’t find this a problem in the slightest. There’s also a lot – a LOT of chat., which I loved, but someone wanting non-stop Dan Brown action won’t appreciate that. Although there’s a lot of tearing around in landaus and barouches and hansoms, it’s not fast paced as a modern thriller and neither should it be, either.

The killer leaves very little in the way of clues; no-one’s seen him, and the boys are seemingly snatched out of locked rooms. It’s how the team piece the case together that makes this a fascinating read, and for me to applaud it as a magnificent work of fiction.

The characters are all vivid and believable. From Lazlo, the Alienist himself, John Moore the journalist, Miss Howard, the bluestocking who takes a post as secretary in the hopes of being the first woman detective, the two Jewish forensic scientists and three members of Lazlo’s household. I identified with them all and wished them well (although doubting they’d all make it through the book unscathed)

As a historical author I can only sit here with my jaw dropped in envy. The research that this book must have taken must have been staggering. It’s not just a matter of learning 19th century police techniques, but there’s obvious intelligence about the whole psychology behind serial murders and the Alienists who study them. Then there’s an indepth knowledge of the powder keg of New York socio-politics and a clear picture of a city on the edge; dragging itself from incipient corruption into a more enlightened age. Add on rich descriptions of buildings and streets that are no longer there, what’s being built, who runs which district, gangs and thugs and whore-houses…. The list is endless and I am in awe.

Very cleverly too, it teases the reader with red-herrings, which,being a red-herring phile I followed to conclusion every time. Highly enjoyable.

If you enjoy crime fiction, and are one of the four people in the world who hasn’t read this, then I recommend it heartily.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss

Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
This sex-filled farce is part James Bond, part Austin Powers. Lucifer Box is a portrait painter and a rake who catches the eye of all the ladies. But there are two things these women don’t know about him. First, Lucifer is His Majesty’s top secret agent. Second, Lucifer is a mad, passionate lover…with his delectable right-hand man, Charlie. Together, the two must set out to discover why Britain’s most prominent scientists are turning up dead. They and a cast of quirky characters must work together to save the world from total destruction. And it all seems to center around an underground sex club, which goes to show that sometimes, you just have to mix business with pleasure.

REVIEW:
The first thing I need to point out in my review of Gatiss’ novel is the description above, which is taken directly from the book’s cover blurb. The description is misleading to a degree. Firstly, it’s not sex-filled – or at least as sex-filled as the blurb seems to impress upon readers. There are sex scenes, yes, but they’re few, and they’re of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety. Even the description of the underground sex club isn’t as titillating as it might sound, with the details being largely general and almost dismissive in tone, with the emphasis more on atmosphere. Secondly, there’s the matter of Box’s “delectable right-hand man” and his relationship with him. For that bit, I’ll have to leave you in a cliffhanger of sorts while I go over other points first.

On the whole, The Vesuvius Club is a fun read. Very fun. Gatiss knows his Victorian and Edwardian London – please excuse the cliche – like the back of his hand. He firmly cements us in his world, its elegance and its seediness, its host of refined and coarse residents. He pours on the details without bogging down the narrative, and we’re left with vivid mental pictures of a time and a place that’s so far removed from ours but ends up feeling very real. Gatiss peoples his novel with a variety of quirky characters, and he gives them distinct personalities and names that make you think of Dickens: Lucifer Box, Charlie Jackpot, Bella Pok, Jocelyn Poop, Christopher Miracle, Emmanuel Quibble, etc.

Mark Gatiss is known as an author of Dr. Who novels, and he also writes for the new Dr. Who series and in fact wrote “The Unquiet Dead,” the episode involving Charles Dickens and zombies for the new series’ first season. One can certainly see his love of Victorian England (in the novel’s case, Edwardian England) in the way he establishes both the setting and the characters’ personalities. In the first half of the book, with the events taking place in London, the story is at its most interesting. Though a comedy and definitely a satire of spy/assassin/detective fiction, the novel still impresses us with a fairly complex plot and a quick pace, with the story being told from Lucifer Box’s point of view.

It’s when the novel’s action moves to Italy that things go down. It’s an odd switch – not in terms of location, no, but in terms of focus. In the first half of the novel, we’re treated to a funny and engaging Sherlock Holmes-style plot; in the second half of the novel, however, things unaccountably turn sci-fi, and what could have been a more solid climax and denoument becomes a study in absurd plot twists involving Mt. Vesuvius, a cult (which made me scratch my head a few times), and the mastermind (and master plot) behind the scientists’ deaths. In brief, there’s such an incongruence in the story elements between the first and the second half of the novel, and what starts out as a very promising Holmes-meets-Austin-Powers plot unravels into a rather weak and silly end.

As for Charlie Jackpot? He’s not introduced till the second half of the novel, which I feel is far too late for him to be as significant a character as the book’s description implies. Yes, he does become Box’s right-hand man, but at that point in the story, his participation brings with it a certain forced feeling into the mix. Lucifer Box, as the protagonist, is witty, self-centered, narcissistic, and an insufferable cad. He’s given so many great lines of the laugh-out-loud variety, but I don’t feel as attached to him as I’d like to be. For all his attractive roguish qualities, the man’s a bastard, and he even takes pleasure in hurting Charlie in one scene or telling some poor, unattractive rent boy that he’s butt-ugly, point blank.

There are a few subplots that also don’t feel satisfactorily tied up. Mrs. Knight’s disappearance and the murder of Abigail, for instance, though largely explained, still leaves holes insofar as justice being brought to the true criminal is concerned. There are also a few involving Bella Pok, which makes me wonder if Gatiss simply bit off more than he could chew in putting his mystery together.

The Vesuvius Club is the first of a trilogy involving Lucifer Box. This book has also been turned into a graphic novel, which I’m really interested in reading though I understand that it’s a distilled version of the original.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: A Cold-Blooded Scoundrel by J S Cook

In London, with Jack the Ripper’s crimes still raw in the great city’s memory, a well-known male prostitute is brutally murdered, the head neatly severed, and the body set on fire. Detective Inspector Phillip Devlin of Scotland Yard, mid-thirties and secretly gay, is called to the murder scene by plainclothes constable Freddie Collins, and soon both Collins and Devlin are caught in a web of intrigue as more savage murders occur. A Cold-Blooded Scoundrel resonates with the sights, sounds, and atmosphere of 1880s London. Witty and engaging, it unfolds the story of a man who must brave not only the killer but also his own inner demons in order to end the violence that is harrowing the city.

Review by Erastes

Oh… I started this book with such brio. It started (and continued for some time) so well. A bloody murder in Victorian London, lots of gore, a bloody thumbprint and a mad-man on the loose. I was certain I was in for a great ride. Sadly I ended up rather disappointed, but the ride was – in the main – enjoyable.

Inpector Phillip Devlin appeals. He’s taciturn to the point of silence and keeps a lot bottled up. He’s got secrets, and that doesn’t only include being homosexual in an era where the Labouchere Amendment has homosexuals running scared. He’s a pioneer in his field, without being a Mary-Sue or a carbon copy Holmes clone, even though he knows a little more about forensics and handwriting and the like than your average plod.

The other main character, and what one hopes will turn out to be Devlin’s love-interest, is Collins, the earnest and not-so-bright devoted assistant. Again, he’s well drawn, and he convinces in his dedication and loyalty to Devlin but I got rather annoyed with the fact that we were constantly told how not-bright he was, he didn’t seem any less dim than the inspector.  Collins holds a large…torch for his inspector but in the days of the Blackmailer’s Charter – when no proof was needed to destroy a career – he has been quiet for a long time, until matters start to turn which drag secrets out into the daylight and both men are suddenly aware of the other in new ways.

As I said, from the promising start it boded well. Good characters, excellent murder, a thinking gay detective, burgeoning evolution of forensics, a couple of resurrection men…

That’s good, and it seemed promising when he spotted strange substances under fingernails and gunpowder up noses … but – well, it just doesn’t GO anywhere.

It just didn’t mesh. I was inspectin’ some detectin’ I suppose, seeing as how it started as such a classic detective novel but about half way through Devlin admits that all the clues he’s got lead nowhere and he’s baffled. And I was too – completely baffled!  I spent the next half of the book waiting impatiently for him to suddenly do a Poirot and say “Incroyable, I have been the imbecile! It’s all so simple!” but the eureka moment just didn’t happen and what started as Holmesian foresenic detection ended up in a sort of John Buchan style chase with everyone knowing what was going on apart from Devlin (and me). Very little is explained, very few loose ends were tied up and I was going “but.. but… what about the ambergris” after I’d shut the book in disappointment.

That being said, there’s some quite delicious writing in this, and all the characters are likeable and believable and very male in parts.  I think that I might just pick up some of Ms Cook’s other books to see what they are like, but having been raised on a diet of Poirot,Marple and Holmes – this didn’t really work for me.  I would be happier too, if the only 2 reviews on Amazon.com were not by the author herself!

Buy Amazon UK    Buy Amazon USA

 

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