Footsteps in the Dark
I had high hopes for this anthology when I saw two of the names attached to it (Dal Maclean and Josh Lanyon), and Footsteps in the Dark more than met my expectations, although in the end, all but one of my favorite stories were penned by new-to-me authors (yay!). None of the eight stories are particularly scary or horrifying; instead, they’re uniformly clever and compelling – featuring an intriguing cast of principal characters (heroes and villains), disparate plots, and settings that transport the reader around the globe. It’s always challenging to review an anthology and this one is better than most. I’ve limited my comments to my favorite stories in the collection (and then graded them in order of preference), but reader – this is a strong assortment of stories you will be hard pressed to put down, and Footsteps in the Dark is more proof that m/m romantic suspense writers are crafting the best stories in romancelandia these days.
Blind Man’s Bluff by L. B. Gregg
Grade: A Sensuality: Kisses
The set-up of this novella – a group of adventurous high school teachers/friends meet-up for a game of Capture the Flag inside a long abandoned shopping mall – didn’t initially grab me, but after the first few pages, told from the extremely sarcastic and self-deprecating PoV of Tommy (not Thomas) Cline, I was hooked.
Tommy has been best friends with Jonah Theroux for years, and after witnessing Jonah masterfully break-up a school fight, he suddenly realizes he’s attracted to him, too. Hoping to sneak away once the game gets underway, Tommy’s surprised and thrilled when it turns out Jonah had a similar plan. The teams split up and Jonah grabs Tommy’s hand and kisses him, whispering about how long he’s waited for Tommy to wake up and realize they’re meant to be together. They trade kisses and finally separate to join their team mate, but just as Tommy turns to follow Jonah, a trussed and blindfolded body drops on top of him.
Gregg, a new-to-me author, hits the gas pedal after the body drops and never backs off until the very end. Tommy and Jonah – and their newest team member, a surly teenager who escaped his captor by flinging himself off the second floor – face off against a homicidal maniac who knows the abandoned mall like the back of his hand. The pace is frantic as they fight off a smug, crazy killer and search for an escape, all the while hoping for help from their missing (possibly dead) friends. Exciting, heart pounding, and romantic, I couldn’t put this story down. Blind Man’s Bluff is my surprise favorite novella in the anthology.
Pepper the Crime Lab by Z. A. Maxfield
Grade: A Sensuality: Kisses
After a bout of pneumonia and near fatal allergic reaction to the medication he took to treat it, chef/restaurant owner Lonnie Boudreaux needs a fresh start. But his first night in his new apartment gets off to a rough start when he’s kept awake by a neighbor’s barking dog. Failing to get the manager to do something about the noise, he meets another frustrated neighbor in the hall – and when the barking abruptly changes to crying, they enter the unlocked apartment and discover the dog with a lampshade cord wrapped around its neck, and a dead body in the master bedroom. Lonny, shocked by the sight of so much blood and a familiar knife in the man’s chest, unthinkingly pulls it out. Oops. His actions make Lonnie the primary suspect in the murder, as his handsome – possibly a cop? – neighbor Enrique “Rick” Garcia makes abundantly clear after he calls police to the crime scene. Lonnie knows he isn’t a murderer and he sets out to find out who is.
Lonny is a stereotypical workaholic restaurant owner. He’s never been good at relationships or taking care of himself, but hopes the forced sabbatical and his goal of pet ownership will help him find balance. He didn’t expect to become a murder suspect or to meet an enigmatic and beautiful stranger from his past. But that’s what he gets.. .along with Pepper, the barking (now ownerless) labrador. This tiny gem of a novella tracks two parallel storylines – Lonny’s search for a killer (and possible dog poisoner) and his personal journey from loner workaholic to loving partner and dog owner. He’s a quirky, horny, loveable mess who finds happiness where he least expects it, and Rick is the gentle and fierce protector (with a heart of gold) who tries diligently to keep him out of harm’s way. I guessed who the villain was early on – but it didn’t stop me from loving every single thing about this story or this pair (and Pepper too!).
A Country for Old Men by Dal Maclean
Grade: A- Sensuality: Warm
After nearly a decade away, Inspector Calum Macleod has returned to his parents’ remote and isolated home in the Western Isles of Scotland, determined to repress his sexual desires and fulfill his destiny – marrying a local girl, giving his parents grandchildren – and spending the remainder of his years tucked away in this quiet corner of the world. But when a neighbor is brutally murdered and evidence at the scene suggests the murder might be linked to a valuable family heirloom, Calum follows the clues… straight to Adam Patterson, the man he’s spent years trying (and failing) to forget.
Atmospheric and sombre, ACFOM is tonally the darkest story in the anthology. Calum is a remote and damaged hero who grows on you as the story progresses, but his deep sadness at the bleak future he imagines for himself is powerfully affecting. Even after the author introduces Adam (clearly his soul mate), it isn’t clear there is a happily ever in the offing for this pair. Adam is aloof and distant, Calum is overwhelmed by the intensity of his feelings being near him again, and it’s an awkward and painful reunion. Maclean loves imperfect characters, unreliable narrators, and genuine emotional conflict and this one has all-of-the-above in spades. I wanted happiness for Calum… but wasn’t sure he wanted it for himself.
Unlike the other stories in this anthology, the whodunnit in ACFOM is impossible to guess, and although I liked how all the disparate plot threads come together, it was a bit overwhelming and a tad too neat. There’s a lot to unpack in this gem of a novella and readers unfamiliar with Maclean might be concerned it’s too much. It isn’t.
Pro tip: Save yourself some frustration and read the bonus Scottish Gaelic glossary before you start reading the novella.
Reality Bites by S. C. Wynne
Grade: A- Sensuality: Warm
Opposites attract when Detective Cabot Decker is asked to investigate the possible murder of one of the contestants in a reality TV show. Cabot isn’t convinced it’s murder – after all, the man was mauled and eaten by a panther after agreeing to spend the night locked in the animal’s cage. Even after he meets the show’s anxious and concerned (handsome) producer, Jax Thornburn, he isn’t convinced the case is anything more than an animal behaving like an animal should, but watching tape of the night the contestant was killed changes his mind. And when someone tries to run the producer off the road and then sets his office on fire, Caleb’s investigation takes on a new urgency. Can he find the killer before Jax becomes a victim?
Reality Bites is a terrific title for this clever novella, especially since reality turns out to be a many layered thing. Is the show reality? Nope. And Caleb’s assumptions – about the case, about Jax, about himself – aren’t reality either. Caleb can’t help but be protective of Jax, and even though he’s attracted to him, he tries hard to resist Jax’s obvious interest. But his efforts are wasted since Caleb likes Jax and wants to keep him safe, and Jax – who’s made a career out of taking chances – wants a wary Caleb to take a chance on him. These two have great chemistry despite their differences, and I enjoyed the developing dynamic between them as much as the investigation into the murder that brings them together. I had my guesses about the villain – and I was partially right – but the climatic ending was still somewhat of a surprise. Reality Bites is a clever, exciting and sexy novella, and S. C. Wynne is another author I’ll be spending more time with in the very near future.
The other novellas in the collection are:
Entree to Murder by Nicole Kimberling. Grade: B
Twelve Seconds by Meg Perry. Grade: B
Lights, Camera, Murder by C. S. Poe. Grade: C+
Stranger in the House by Josh Lanyon. Grade: C+