Desert Isle Keeper
Note: This is a series featuring overarching plotlines so there will be spoilers for the previous books in this review.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Declination, the third book in Gregory Ashe’s terrific Borealis Investigations series featuring private investigators North McKinney and Shaw Aldrich. While these stories are predominantly mysteries, there’s a strong romantic thread running through them, too; and although the main mystery plots in each of the previous books has been tied up by the end, there are overarching storylines running throughout all three novels in the set which mean that they really should be read in order so as to fully understand the nature of the relationship between the two leads and the important backstory which underpins the plot.
North and Shaw are best friends as well as business partners, and they share a complicated and troubled history. We’ve watched them yearn for each other, burn up the pages with unresolved sexual tension and deliberately avoid talking about their feelings for one another for two books, but that changed at the end of the last one, and when Declination opens, North and Shaw are – at last – a couple. Things are far from ideal however, as Shaw continues to suffer the anxiety and panic attacks during sex which started following his involvement with a duplicitous client who tried to kill him. Shaw has wanted North so badly for so long that he fears losing him should the other man ever work out just how messed up he is, so Shaw is trying to deal with his issues on his own while desperately trying to prevent North from finding out the truth.
The main plot thread that has run through the series concerns the identity of the West End Slasher, the serial killer who, eight years earlier, killed Shaw’s boyfriend in a vicious attack that also left Shaw critically injured. Shaw has long been convinced that the wrong man was imprisoned for the Slasher’s crimes, and at the end of Orientation (book one), he came into possession of a video clip that gave him his first real lead in tracking down the actual murderer. When the supposed Slasher was killed in prison the day before Shaw was due to visit him, and when, during their last investigation, he and North kept running up against members of the St. Louis PD’s LGBT task force who were obviously hiding something and wanted to get North and Shaw out of the way, Shaw became even more convinced of the existence of a police cover-up. And at the end of Triangulation, North and Shaw were sent a message that was an unmistakable threat. Detective Jadon Reck, Shaw’s ex, arrived on their doorstep, beaten and bloody, with a photograph of North pinned to his jacket and the words “he’s next” carved into his chest.
The events of Declination take place a few months after those of the previous book. After catching up with a small-time thief they’ve been asked to take into the Circuit Attorney’s office, North and Shaw bump into Jadon, who is back at work, but obviously not doing so well. That night, Shaw receives a call from Jadon’s work partner, who tells him that Jadon has been hospitalised following another attack – and this time is in a really bad way. The police are trying to spin it as a suicide attempt, but Shaw is convinced that Jadon has been targeted because of his association with him and North and their continued search for the truth about the West End Slasher.
While Shaw is struggling (and often failing) to process so many things – about the attack years before, about what happened with Matty Fenmore, about his feelings for North – North is coming to realise that even though he and Shaw have lived practically in each other’s pockets for years, Shaw is slowly turning into someone he doesn’t know. Concerned about the toll the investigation is taking on the man he loves, North tries to persuade Shaw to take a step back and work with one of their new clients while North continues the investigation into the Slasher, but Shaw can’t. His need to get to the truth is too tangled up with the trauma of the attack and his desire to just be ‘normal’ again; he’s become fixated on finding the killer, seeing it as a way of achieving some sort of closure and getting his life back. (I admit that I couldn’t help wondering why Shaw wasn’t getting professional help; he mentions a therapist, but from North’s dismissive reaction, I inferred the therapist wasn’t very good!)
Amid the chaos of betrayal, corruption and murder, with North and Shaw not knowing who they can trust and that a step in the wrong direction could mean it’s their last step, Gregory Ashe brings the Slasher plotline to a close in a heart-breaking, shocking and completely unexpected manner. He’s an excellent plotter; even the most random of threads often turns out to have significance and he weaves them skilfully in and out of the narrative to create a complex, satisfying whole that kept me on the edge of my seat. He’s equally adept at character and relationship development, and continues to steer North and Shaw’s romance in a positive direction while also making it clear that they’ve got a long way to go, and I liked the honesty of that. There’s no question these two are committed and deeply in love, but they know they have work to do to build a life together and they’re prepared to do it. Mr. Ashe also writes wonderful dialogue and the banter between North and Shaw is sharp and funny, even as it serves to provide insight into their minds and relationship, and to demarcate the dynamic between them at the same time as it propels the story forward.
Declination is a clever, fast-paced and absorbing novel that brings this storyline to a nail-biting close, and leaves North and Shaw in a good place (together) and on the brink of a new direction in their careers. But this isn’t the last we’re going to hear of them; the book ends with… not really a cliffhanger, but definitely a hint of more to come, and I’m very much looking forward to it.