Spoiler alert: The Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords series picks up after the events detailed in Criminal Past (Hazard and Somerset, #6), and there will be spoilers for that series in this review.
Picking up three months after the nightmarish events of Criminal Past, The Rational Faculty is a novel in three overlapping parts: the relationship between Hazard and Somerset; a standalone mystery/case the pair are tasked with solving - albeit differently than they have in the past; and, finally, an introduction to the overarching plot that will link this new series (my review will tread very carefully on this last point). Gregory Ashe absolutely nails every element of this challenging and sinister first instalment, and each part is tremendously well done. If you’re squeamish, be warned, the ending is graphic and disturbing.
When the story opens, Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset are in love and living together, recuperating and putting their lives back together after a near-death escape from Mikey Grames. Somerset has finally returned to the Wahredua PD - but nothing is the same. In a last minute Criminal Past twist, Emery agreed to leave the force in exchange for a guarantee that Somerset could keep his job; meanwhile, Emery is at home. Alone. Doing house things. Maybe. Somerset isn’t sure, but he doesn’t like leaving the big man by himself. He’s worried about Emery, and if he’s honest with himself, scared, too.
Emery is struggling. He’s desperately in love with John, but is barely able to get through each day now that he’s no longer a detective. He tries - and fails - to keep his depression, PTSD and anxiety a secret from his lover, and Somers’ inability to penetrate Hazard’s ‘everything is great,’ facade only ratchets up the tension between them. Emery’s day-to-day, hour-to-hour struggle infects everything in his life, permeating the story with a pervasive bleakness... until just when it seems Emery’s fragile, tenuous hold on sanity is at a breaking point, Somers gets called out to investigate a murder, and Hazard finds himself also inexorably drawn into the investigation.
The messy, complicated Halloween murder of a professor at the local college gives readers their first glimpse of Somers' new partner - a young, handsome gay detective fond of fist bumps, sexual innuendo, and the word ‘bro’ (Hazard’s reactions to him are a treat) - and introduces a host of memorable secondary characters, some of whom we met in the first series. Although the murder takes place in the midst of a costume party, the killer easily escaped, and witnesses are unhelpful, uncooperative and suspicious. Despite his new partner's enthusiasm for the investigation, Somers’ instincts (which he doubts at every turn) tell him something isn’t quite right. Instead of working through his concerns with Dulac, he turns to Hazard, the best investigator he knows. Hazard listens and offers advice, helping Somers work through the case, but he also tries (and fails) to keep his distance. Once the case gets his attention, he can’t resist investigating on his own. The familiar thrill of working a case lights him up and keeps his depression at bay.
When Hazard makes a major discovery based on information he received from Somers, it complicates Somers’ relationship with Hazard, Dulac and the Wahredua PD; when Hazard subsequently agrees to take on the case at the behest of one of the witnesses, it further blurs the line between their personal and professional partnership, putting their future together at risk.
While The Rational Faculty features a supremely clever and complicated murder investigation (two, actually - Hazard and Somers work the same case from different angles), its strength lies in the compelling and thought provoking examination of the ways in which both primary and secondary characters rationalize increasingly irrational behavior. From Hazard’s determination to shield John from his struggles and doubts about his future, to John’s unwillingness to confront his fears about Hazard’s mental health, their relationship, and not being good enough, to a killer(s) belief that murder is sometimes justified... everyone in this novel rationalizes why they do what they do. Even when what they do is completely irrational. And it makes the case that much more difficult to solve. Hazard and Somers aren’t unreliable narrators in the traditional sense, but since their viewpoints are compromised by their inability to be honest with each other - and their relationship is the backbone of the novel - it inhibits their ability to find the killer and delays the realization that someone else might be manipulating events in an entirely different and terrifying way.
When I read the first Hazard and Somerset series, I complained it lacked romance. In hindsight, I realize the slow burn love affair was romantic, but what I wanted was more physical intimacy. By the time The Rational Faculty finally reaches a crescendo, I had reason to regret it! Physical intimacy becomes the only way the pair can communicate. Fortunately, Mr. Ashe doesn’t take the easy, predictable path - breaking them up, only to have them reunite later in the series - instead, even while a killer is on the loose and both men are furiously working the case, he makes them do the hard work of figuring out how to stay together. I loved these parallel mysteries - and their 100% dedication to both. Their relationship - in all it’s terrible and lovely iterations - is the foundation of the series, and the evolving dynamic between them is the lodestone that pulls all the dangerous, disparate parts together. There’s something so beautiful and special about Hazard and Somers; this is a couple you root for even when it seems there’s no way forward. One of my favorite scenes in The Rational Faculty features a surprise Somers has for Hazard. It cements Hazard’s future as a private detective, their commitment to each other, and features all my favorite trademarks of this crime fighting duo: the scene is alternately snarky, sexy, funny and profoundly moving...and I loved it.
You may have noticed that I’ve shied away from discussing what I believe will be the overarching plotline of the series. While all the Hazard and Somerset novels ended after a thrilling and violent crescendo, followed by a will they or won’t they moment, The Rational Faculty ends on a different note. Emery and Somers are a couple, but another killer is on the loose. And this one is infinitely more dangerous. (I have my suspicions.)
Friends, The Rational Faculty is tremendous start to this brand new series, and one of my favorite novels of the year. If you aren’t reading this series, you’re missing out.
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