Desert Isle Keeper
Clever, insightful, romantic and utterly compelling, Madison Square Murders, the first book in C.S. Poe’s Momento Mori series, was one of my favourite books of 2021. I’ve been on tenterhooks awaiting the release of the sequel, desperately hoping that lightning would strike in the same place twice – and I’m happy to say that it did, because Subway Slayings is every bit as good as – if not even better than – its predecessor. If you like the sound of the combination of brilliant, tautly-plotted mystery and delicious slow-burn romance, this is the series for you – but while the mysteries in each book are solved, there’s an overarching plotline developing and the relationship is ongoing, so make sure to start at the beginning!
Detective Everett Larkin of the Cold Case Squad has been on medical leave to recuperate from the broken arm sustained in an attack by the ‘Death Mask Killer’ at the end of Madison Square Murders. While he was in hospital waiting for surgery, he received a packet containing an old subway token and a note, its message spelled out in cut and pasted letters (like those old blackmail notes you see in the movies!) “I HAVE A BETTER MEMENTO FOR YOU. COME FIND ME.”
On the nineteenth of May, exactly fifty-nine days later (because of course, Larkin would know that) and one day before he’s due to resume active duty, Larkin is called to the Fifty-Seventh Street subway station after a decomposing body is found, stuffed in a blue IKEA tote bag, in a utility closet on the platform. He’s not sure why he’s been called when this is clearly a recent homicide, but his questions are answered when the CSU detective passes him an evidence bag containing a photograph of a teenaged girl, slumped awkwardly on one of the oak benches scattered throughout the subway system. The girl appears to be asleep – or drunk or stoned – and the photo itself looks like something that would have been developed thirty or forty years ago. The real kicker, though, is what’s scrawled across the back: “Deliver me to Detective Larkin.”
After escaping the oppressive heat and awful smells down in the tunnels, but not so easily escaping the many and relentless associations – of both his own past and of the many unsolved murders his HSAM won’t let him forget – Larkin calls in expert help in the form of Ira Doyle of the Forensic Artist Unit, who confirms Larkin’s suspicions about the age of the photo but also realises something else. The girl on the bench isn’t asleep. She’s dead. And later that evening, Larkin makes an important connection with one of the cold cases that haunts him almost more than any other, the murder, on the nineteenth of May 1997, of eighteen-year-old Marco Garcia who was pushed in front of a train… at the Fifty-Seventh Street station.
“Today is the twenty-third anniversary of Marco’s death. Once is chance. Twice is coincidence.” Larkin looked up and finished with “Three time’s a pattern.”
The mystery element of Subway Slayings is clever, meticulously researched and absolutely fascinating, but it’s disturbing, too, because as Larkin and Doyle dig deeper, their discoveries lead them to more victims, all of them from one of the most vulnerable groups in society, and to a truly despicable network of people who are only too willing to exploit them. (Please note – there is nothing graphic on page, but crimes against children and young people are central to the plot.)
At the same time as the author is building her intricate mystery, she’s also presenting us with some of the most amazing character and relationship development I think I’ve ever read. We’ve already seen how Larkin’s HSAM (hyper superior autobiographical memory) affects him in every aspect of his life; how he can become hyper focused, how difficult it is for him to remember small, day-to-day details that cause no problem for most of us, how hard he finds social interaction, how his condition makes him an embarrassment to some (his parents and soon-to-be-ex husband) or a fascinating curiosity (his doctor) – while not one of them either cares or wants to know what it’s really like to live with a brain that can never forget or switch off. How in the eighteen years since the traumatic brain injury that caused it, nobody has ever asked if he’s okay. Nobody – until now. Until Ira Doyle.
“… in eighteen years, I’ve never been happy having HSAM. Until now. Because I don’t ever want to forget how you make me feel.”
Their romantic relationship is the slowest – and sweetest – of slow burns, but it’s absolutely perfect for who these people are and where they are in their lives. They don’t do more than kiss on the page, but their chemistry is such that it feels as steamy as a full-on sex scene, and their strong emotional connection is intense and totally believable. If ever a couple deserved the label ‘soulmates’, it’s this one. Right from the start, Doyle has recognised in Larkin something to be cherished and cared for, and the way he does both those things, his patience and simple, undemanding acceptance of Larkin and everything he is, is an utter joy to read. Doyle is one of those people whose presesnce and smile can light up a room; he’s warm and charming and funny – and very, very good at what he does, with an innate ability to put people at their ease and encourage confidences in a way Larkin can never do. There were hints in the previous book, though, that there’s a lot of grief and pain lying behind that equanimous exterior, and in this one, this finally clicks into place for Larkin, and he realises that this man he’s coming to care for a very great deal – maybe even to love – is still sometihng of a mystery to him.
For being such a decorated officer, Larkin really was a piss-poor detective when it came to understanding the one man, potentially the only man, who’d come to matter.
There is an incredibly insightful passage – too long to quote here in full – in which Larkin thinks about the way contemporary society views death, especially the death of children (Doyle lost his daughter, Abigail, some years earlier – we still don’t know what happened), how people just don’t ask, or don’t listen to those who are grieving, because they can’t handle it – and realises just how deeply Doyle’s hurt must run, that his constant activity and congenial, sunshiny demeanour are covering up a broken heart.
When they’d all turned their backs, because a child’s wake was too much to see, a father’s cries too difficult to hear, there’d been no one left to listen.
The funeral pall had been draped.
The mourning veil lowered.
And Ira Doyle had become… a mystery.
My heart broke a little, then, too. In fact, it broke a little several times while I was reading this book; I was completely and utterly floored by the degree of emotional intelligence and pinpoint insight that leaps from its pages in a way that is absolutely consistent with its characters and their situation. This isn’t authorial pontificating or info-dumping, it’s focused and woven into the very fabric of who these men are – broken, but doing the best they can in a world that doesn’t really understand them – or want to.
For all the darkness of the mystery and the exploration of grief and loss, Subway Slayings is certainly not without its lighter moments. Doyle’s gentle sense of humour, Larkin’s deadpan snark and their good-natured banter are much in evidence, and their quiet moments together – some of Larkin’s thoughts about Doyle are achingly beautiful – really are food for the heart and soul.
The Memento Mori series is shaping up to become one of my favourite series ever. The plots are clever and complex with lots of moving parts that C.S. Poe skilfully corrals into something gripping and cohesive, the two leads are damaged and intensely loveable and their evolving relationship is a thing of beauty.
Subway Slayings left me with the best kind of book hangover and goes straight on to the keeper shelf – it will undoubtedly be making an appearance on my Best of 2022 list. Book three, Broadway Butchery, is set for release in Spring 2023; I’ll be counting the days.