Orientation is the first book in a new series of mysteries by Gregory Ashe, and in it, he introduces us to North McKinney and Kingsley Shaw Wilder Aldrich, who own and run a detective agency in St. Louis. They’ve been friends – best friends – since college even though they couldn’t be more different. North is from a blue collar family – his father was a construction worker and North himself worked on a fair few building sites before college – while Shaw was born with a whole set of silver spoons in his mouth, and dropped out of college after he was the victim of a hate crime that left him badly injured and killed his then (and first ever) boyfriend. Even though the perpetrator was subsequently arrested and imprisoned, Shaw has never been sure the right man was convicted, and that – and his experience as a victim of crime – is one of the things that prompted him to become a private investigator.
The author very quickly establishes the nature and strength of the relationship between the two men. North is gruff, down to earth and often treats Shaw with the kind of affectionate exasperation usually afforded to siblings, while Shaw is inquisitive, bright and enthusiastic with a kind of wide-eyed innocence about him unusual for a man in his mid-twenties. They’ve got a bit of an odd-couple dynamic going on (Shaw is the ridiculously messy one while North likes things just so), and when they’re working or in a tight spot their banter is so smooth that they practically finish each other’s sentences. They may be opposites in many ways, but they’re on the same mental wavelength and it’s clear that there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for one another. It’s also clear they’ve got it pretty bad for each other and have spent years hiding it; North is married (not too happily as becomes apparent as the story progresses) and thinks Shaw only sees him as an obnoxious brother, while Shaw is still struggling, almost eight years after the attack, to trust a man enough to go out on a date with him; and even were that not the case, North is off-limits and doesn’t think of him that way anyway.
The firm they run together, Borealis Investigations, hit a rough patch a few months earlier following a case which saw North shooting a suspect in order to save Shaw’s life. Not only has North’s PI license has been suspended pending appeal, the suspect then dragged him into a costly lawsuit. They haven’t had a case in months, but things start to take an upturn when an attractive, nervous young man makes his way into the office looking for Shaw and asks for help. North is immediately on his guard, and not just because he sees straight away that the guy has the sort of lost-puppy thing going on that will appeal to Shaw’s protective instincts – and doesn’t like it. When Matty Fennmore haltingly explains he’s sought them out because he’s being blackmailed, North – quite sensibly – doesn’t want to go near the case and suggests Matty should go to the police. But when Matty goes into detail – telling them how he’s been so scared of coming out because of his ultra-religious family and how he can’t go to the police because that will make everything public and his parents will find out – North knows he’s lost the battle. Shaw is clearly smitten as well as outraged on Matty’s behalf and reminds North that they need clients and that people like Matty are why they started Borealis in the first place, to help people nobody else can or will help. North is forced to admit that Shaw is right about one thing – they do need the work. But he doesn’t have to like it.
As their investigation progresses, North and Shaw gradually realise that there’s more going on than a single act of blackmail, and that the recordings are being used to control and manipulate important people across the city. When Matty is attacked and their main suspect turns up dead it’s clear that the blackmailer is becoming desperate and is willing to do whatever it takes to protect their ‘investment’. But potentially damning information from an unexpected quarter suddenly turns everything on its head and throws a live grenade into the middle of Shaw and North’s friendship which leaves them both devastated. Will they be able to solve the case, repair their tattered relationship… and come out of it alive?
Mr. Ashe has penned an intriguing, gritty mystery which progresses at a good pace and features some colourful and intriguing supporting characters. But as with his earlier Detectives Hazard and Somerset series, the big draw is the likeable, complex but flawed leads and the complicated relationship between them that runs a true gamut of emotion and oozes UST like there’s no tomorrow. There’s obviously a great deal of affection there and the guys know each other extremely well, but there are some things about each other they’ve got completely wrong – and I don’t just mean because neither of them has twigged how the other feels about him. Although the story is told in dual PoVs, Orientation focuses a little more on Shaw than on North, on showing readers who he is, how the trauma he suffered has affected him and on exploring his feelings for North and their relationship. We get similar insights from North’s perspective, too, although we don’t learn as much about his life outside of his work; up until a certain point, we only know he’s married, he’s not happy and that he’s keeping something – something big – from Shaw. The author drip feeds various pieces of information about their lives together – the attack Shaw barely survived, the shooting that may have sunk North’s career, and their friendship over the years – but I don’t think he’s given us the full picture yet and I can’t wait to find out more.
The blackmailer plot is wrapped up by the end of the novel, so it works as a standalone although the final chapter sets up what I suspect may be an overarching plotline. I continue to be impressed with the quality of Mr. Ashe’s writing, his insight into character and motivation, and his ability to create memorable characters you can’t help but want to spend time with while at the same time wanting to bang their heads together! North and Shaw have just the sort of angsty, screwed-up relationship that I can’t resist and I’m eagerly awaiting the next instalment of their story. Orientation is an absorbing start to a promising new series and a great place to jump in with this author if you’ve never read his work before.