Desert Isle Keeper
Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series comprises some of the best books I’ve read this year, and if you’re a fan of m/m romantic suspense/thrillers and haven’t read them yet, then you’ve got a real treat in store. The titular Seven of Spades is a serial killer plaguing Las Vegas, and because the series has plotlines and character relationships that stretch across all five books in the series, there will be spoilers for the earlier books in this review. And this is absolutely not the place to jump in if you haven’t read the previous books. Go back to book one, Kill Game, and then work your way here – I promise you won’t be disappointed because this series is one of the most gripping I’ve ever read.
At the end of book three, Cash Plays, Detective Levi Abrams and his lover, PI Dominic Russo, crashed and burned in a pretty spectacular way. Dominic, a compulsive gambler, doesn’t see his addiction as an illness, believing instead that it’s a personal weakness he just has to be strong enough to conquer. Because of this, he hasn’t really sought out the right sort of help (or much of it), and when a case he was working put him in the way of starting to gamble again in order to maintain his cover, he fell very quickly back into old habits. One of the things Cordelia Kingsbridge does spectacularly well in these books is explore the motivations and thought processes of an addict, and she shows very clearly the processes of self-deception and denial Dominic goes through in order to convince himself there’s nothing wrong and he can stop gambling after the case is over. And while Dominic is becoming increasingly self-absorbed and desperate to hide his relapse from Levi, Levi is going through hell courtesy of his increasing frustration over the lack of progression in the Seven of Spades case and the growing suspicion of his colleagues. In yet another Machiavellian turn, the killer is targeting the men who beat Levi so viciously over a decade earlier and were never punished, and the SoS’s fascination – obsession – with Levi and the similarities in their psyches pointed out by the FBI profiler in the previous book are driving a wedge between him and those around him. He’s hanging on to his volcanic temper and his sanity by the merest thread, his professional reputation is being gradually eroded and he’s more afraid than ever of what he might do if he’s pushed too far. And he’s going through it alone and without the support of the man he loves.
Levi and Dominic split up after an epic row at the end of Cash Plays, and at the beginning of One-Eyed Royals a few months later, are still apart… although they can’t keep their hands off each other and continue to have sex on a fairly regular basis. These hook-ups inevitably end badly, but they just can’t quit each other. Levi vowed to make Dominic’s life a living hell until he stopped gambling, and he’s making good on that promise, having him blacklisted from practically every casino in the city and making sure Dominic is hounded by cops every time he turns around. Levi has always had a capacity for ruthlessness; he’s sarcastic, abrasive and there’s no doubt some of his actions and words are downright cruel – yet I couldn’t exactly blame him for them most of the time. (And Dominic isn’t completely blameless in the cruelty department, either.) Levi is furious with Dominic; not because he’s relapsed but because of the lengths he’s gone to hide it from him – and because Dominic can’t (or won’t) admit his gambling has become a problem again.
In each of the books in the series so far, the author has cleverly developed two seemingly disparate plotlines only to gradually merge them during the course of the story, and that’s no different here. The Seven of Spades is continuing their vigilante crusade, the city’s rival gangs are still jostling for position and Dominic’s latest case is proving extremely frustrating. Hired to look into the possibility of fraud or sabotage at Kensington Insurance Group, a company that specialises in providing insurance against kidnap and ransom for high-ranking executives, his client is unhelpfully cagy, unwilling to brief Dominic on all that he needs to know.
On top of all the stress of the stalled SoS investigation and of Dominic’s descent back into addiction, Levi picks up another murder case, this time seemingly unconnected to the Seven of Spades, in which the victim has had one eye surgically removed. When a young woman, a high-powered executive, arrives at the station and tells him how she was kidnapped and had the same procedure – her eye sent to her family and colleagues as an unmistakable message – it’s clear there’s more to the murder than at first appeared. It transpires that both she and the dead man were insured by Kensington, which throws Levi and Dominic into each other’s orbits once again, and they reluctantly have to work together in spite of the seemingly irreconcilable differences that lie between them.
Cordelia Kingsbridge once again weaves a compelling suspense plot and ratchets up the tension as the SoS’ latest killing spree strikes really close to home for Levi. But the relationship between the leads is the big draw in this series, and in this book, the angst-o-meter is cranked up to eleven. Both men are hurting; Levi knows Dominic is his bashert, his soulmate, and he feels totally bereft without him, while Dominic is so far down the rabbit hole of denial, his feelings of worthlessness stoking his need for the rush gambling gives him, that he can’t and won’t seek the help he needs. It seems there’s no hope for them until another shocking development pushes Levi one more step closer to the edge and finally brings the truth home to Dominic; and in a brilliant yet disturbing set-piece near the end in which they’re pitted directly against the Seven of Spades, they prove once and for all that they’re stronger together than apart.
At the end (where I may have squealed with delight) Ms. Kingsbridge sets the scene for the final book in the series with considerable aplomb, promising an exciting showdown between our heroes and the enigmatic killer who has so far eluded them. I know there are lots of theories out there as to the identity of the Seven of Spades, but I confess to having no idea whatsoever and I’m quite happy to wait for the reveal in book five, A Chip and a Chair.
The Seven of Spades series has quickly become a firm favourite, and while part of me wishes I’d read it earlier, another part is glad I picked it up near the end so that I haven’t had to wait between instalments. I love the characters, the plotlines, the humour, the angst and the tenderness; Cordelia Kingsbridge has consistently maintained an incredibly high standard throughout the series, and I’m eagerly anticipating more of the same when the final book comes out next Spring.