Note: This is the thirteenth full-length novel in the Hazard and Somerset series, so new readers are advised not to start here. There are spoilers for the previous books in this review.
I think, if I had to write a one-word review of Gregory Ashe’s Custody Battles, it would be OUCH. I spent most of the time reading it with my insides tied up in knots, and even when they were able to unknot a little, I knew that wouldn’t be the end of it.
Things are already fraught when the book begins, as Hazard and Somers are getting ready to host dinner for friends and family – the family including Somers’ parents, neither of whom is shy about making known their disappointment in him. Adding to Somers’ already heightened tension is the fact that Cole – the teen he and Hazard are now fostering (see Relative Justice) – absolutely hates him, for no reason that Somers can fathom. Somers has been friendly and reasonable, but no matter what he says or does, Colt is completely hostile – and while Somers recognises that Colt has had a crappy time of it and that he’s a vulnerable kid, he can’t help feeling bewildered, hurt and, sometimes, resentful. The quiet evenings watching TV and eating takeout with his husband he’d been looking forward to have gone out the window, and Somers can’t help but feel – at times – as though he’s being pushed aside. He knows it’s ridiculous to feel that way – he’s a grown man and can be adult about the situation, but… those feelings are there nonetheless.
Things go from bad to worse later that evening, when Colt’s deadbeat dad Danny Ballantyne shows up and confronts Somers, threatening to petition to get custody of Cole back unless Somers pays him to go away. Somers knows – he knows – it’s dumb to think he’ll go and stay away – but on top of everything else – Colt’s hatred, his parents’ condescending disapproval, his feeling that things are slowly spinning out of control – Somers decides that here’s something he can do for Colt and for Hazard (he knows losing Colt would devastate him) and decides to handle it himself so as not to worry them. He agrees to find the money to pay Ballantyne off, even though they really don’t have it – and not to tell Hazard what’s going on.
Okay, so at this point, I was mentally screaming – ‘Somers, you idiot, you know better than to keep this from Hazard!’ – but before that disaster is allowed to unfold, another looms in the form of Somers’ dad’s ‘invitation’ (insistence) that Hazard and Somers accompany him on an overnight hunting trip. Neither is keen and both are suspicious; Somerset Sr. eventually tells them he’s heard rumours of a potential parental kidnapping and that he thinks Somers just being around will be enough to prevent it. Reluctantly, Hazard and Somers agree to go, and when they arrive the next day, they find themselves in the middle of the most awful group of people imaginable, (quite honestly, I would have been quite happy had they ALL been bumped off!), which includes the couple they’d heard about, who are engaged in a very acrimonious divorce and fighting for custody of their completely obnoxious son.
When the husband is killed somewhere out in the forest, suspicion immediately falls on the Boone’s neighbour Dunkie Newcomb, a member of the right-wing extremist Ozark Volunteers, with whom the Boones have had frequent disputes about property boundaries, but Hazard and Somers aren’t convinced, and start to dig a little deeper. The fact that the victim was a lying, violent, bullying piece of shit means there’s no shortage of people who would have liked to have seen the back of him, and the sudden appearance at Hazard’s office of Naomi Malsho – Somers’ former sister-in-law and someone with strong connections to the Volunteers – complicates matters still further. She insists Newcomb has a cast-iron alibi, but that she can’t reveal it for fear of endangering others. Hazard knows Naomi is clever and devious, and even though he’s extremely suspicious, he agrees to take the job she’s offering – to prove Newcomb innocent of the murder.
Oh, what a tangled web…
As I said at the beginning, this is one of those books that will tie you up in knots. As well as another clever, gripping and suspenseful mystery (including some seriously edge-of-your-seat moments!) Custody Battles takes a long, hard look at parenthood in all its various forms, both good and (very, very) bad – a look which includes Somers’ own parents, whose approval he still craves even though he knows it shouldn’t matter. Although Hazard and Somers always get equal billing in these novels, this one is most definitely a’ Somers book’, focusing on his struggle to adapt to his new roles as Chief of Police and as parent of a difficult teenager – and it’s not going at all well. He’s aware of his deep-seated need to be liked, but hasn’t yet realised he can’t continue to be everyone’s friend at work, and Colt’s open hostility is wearing him down even further and causing massive amounts of tension between him and Hazard, especially when they clash over discipline issues. Wanting to find a way to get Colt to like him, Somers always steps in and tries to smooth things over when he thinks Hazard is being too hard on the boy, without recognising he’s doing precisely what his parents did whenever he screwed up; making excuses for his behaviour and trivialising whatever it was he did, telling him it wasn’t his fault and generally making it seem as though he could do no wrong. It takes him a while to realise this, of course – although he – and we – are very clearly shown what’s at the end of that particular path through the character of Junior, a deeply, deeply unpleasant and damaged young man thanks to exactly that sort of behaviour on the part of his parents.
Custody Battles is absolutely brilliant in its focus and level of insight, and it packs one hell of an emotional punch, but it’s a tough read with several moments of uncompromising, brutal honesty along the way. That Hazard and Somers love each other deeply is never in question, but knowing each other so very well means they each know exactly how to twist the knife – and when they do, it’s not pretty. Yet for all the difficult discussions and arguments, there’s still plenty of humour to be had, as well as some lovely tender moments between our heroes – and that ending. Gah!
The secondary characters are all superbly crafted; we’ve met many of them before, and of all of them, it’s Nico who really shines. (The way he deals with Naomi is priceless). I’ve never been in the ‘I hate Nico’ camp (I know some H&S fans dislike him), and I’m really enjoying watching him grow as a character and into someone Hazard has come to call a friend (not that he’d ever admit as much!)
Custody Battles isn’t always an easy read, but it’s utterly compelling and completely un-put-down-able nonetheless. The characterisation and relationship development are superb, the mystery is well-crafted and Hazard and Somers are as captivating now as they ever were – possibly moreso. They love and they fight and they screw up, but they’re never any less than human as they navigate their way through work, life, marriage, and parenthood, making it up as they go along – just as we all have to, most of the time.
Fans of Hazard and Somers won’t be disappointed in this latest Arrows in the Hand book (although they might gnash their teeth and shout a bit!), and Gregory Ashe proves that thirteen isn’t always an unlucky number and chalks up yet another DIK.
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