Desert Isle Keeper
Transactional Dynamics, book three in the Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords series, is possibly my favourite book of this series and by this author; and that’s saying something considering I haven’t given anything of his I’ve read so far less than a B+ (and most have been DIKs). As in the two previous books, there are standalone mysteries to be solved while the author keeps the overarching plotline around the serial killer dubbed the Keeper of Bees ticking over in the background. Taking centre stage however is the complex and often frustrating relationship between the two leads, which Mr. Ashe continues to explore with his customary skill and insight.
Note: This book does not stand alone; there are plotlines continuing from previous books and the relationship between Hazard and Somerset really needs to be experienced from the beginning. There are spoilers for earlier books in this review.
In Police Brutality, private investigator Emery Hazard and his boyfriend Detective John-Henry Somerset went through a rough patch, clashing professionally as well as personally as Hazard, still struggling with the PTSD and depression left over from the events of the previous summer, and with the guilt he feels over the murder of a young gay couple months before, had started to withdraw from Somers (again), leaving Somers feeling shut out and worried, both for the man he loves and their relationship. Having worked through those problems, and with Hazard agreeing to try to be more open and communicative, things have been going well… but over the past few weeks, irritations and annoyances have begun to creep in, as Somers has started slipping back into some of his old ways of avoidance and drinking too much. I think any couple – especially one with young children – will recognise this particular dynamic; Somers works a fairly rigid schedule and is also often called out unexpectedly; Hazard works for himself and can be more flexible with his hours; Somers wants to kick back and relax when he gets home from work; Hazard wants him to pull his weight around the house and with childcare… it’s a difficult balance to achieve and maintain, and both men’s resentment is building as they try to avoid a major row about who does the dishes and the laundry while continuing to care for their daughter and do demanding and stressful jobs.
But sadly – Hazard and Somers being, well, them – things are about to get much worse. Completely out of the blue one evening, Hazard’s ex, Billy Rolker appears on their doorstep begging for help. Not surprisingly, Hazard wants nothing to do with him and storms out, but avoiding Billy isn’t so easy when he turns up at Hazard’s office. He tells Hazard he’s running from a guy who is physically abusive and who has sent a couple of goons to find him and beat him up, and then presents a tox screen report from the previous night that shows he had Rohypnol in his system. His guess is the goons put the drug in his drink while he was at the Pretty Pretty, but he didn’t pass out and managed to get an Uber to the hospital. Hazard tells Billy he should go to the police, but he just wants help to get away and promises that if Hazard will help him, he’ll disappear forever.
Meanwhile, Somers and Dulac are assigned to investigate the murder of a woman found beaten to death in the alley at the back of the Pretty Pretty. As the investigation progresses, Somers becomes increasingly concerned at the number of accusations they’re hearing about the local cops being dirty; it’s not uncommon to hear it from people who don’t want to talk to them, but this is more than that. Somers is starting to form suspicions as to who might be on the take and has to ask himself if one or more of his colleagues could be a murderer. The waters are muddied still further when it emerges that Billy wasn’t the only person at the club who was drugged; Hazard’s ex, Nico Flores was also a victim that night – and his prints have been found all over the murder weapon. A desperate Nico asks Hazard to find out who is trying to frame him, Somers doesn’t know how far the corruption he’s uncovered goes, and to make matters even worse, Billy’s presence and machinations look set to drive a wedge between Hazard and Somers that they might not be able to come back from.
I really like the way, at the beginning of each book, Gregory Ashe sets Hazard and Somers on separate paths that seem to have nothing in common, but which slowly and inexorably converge. The two men are completely attuned to each other (even when they’re on the outs personally) and work together so well, that the high point – in terms of the mystery plot – of each book is the one at which they realise they’re working the same case and pool their considerable resources. In each novel, it’s difficult to see how the author can possibly pull the different story threads together – but he does and I never tire of watching it happen.
The reappearance of Billy throws a serious spanner into the works when it comes to Hazard and Somers’ relationship at a time when things aren’t going so well, despite their recent engagement. Somers has begun to fall back into old, self-destructive patterns, while Hazard’s deep-seated insecurities are stirred up and, aided by Billy’s carefully targeted manipulation, eat away at him more than ever. Somers, who has always been good at reading people, has Billy pegged straight away for the nasty, manipulative bastard he is; he knows how severely Billy screwed with Hazard’s head, and now he’s seen it in action, he realises just how dangerous Billy could still be to him. I rarely feel utter loathing for a fictional character, but I felt it for Billy; he’s so devious and so plausible, a kind of insidious evil that’s so much more dangerous than the person who tells you outright they’re going to punch you.
I continue to enjoy the relationship between Somers and Dulac, and I may have done a little happy dance when North and Shaw (from the author’s Borealis Investigations series) showed up, having been engaged to find Billy and take him back to St. Louis. Hazard and Somers met North briefly in Triangulation, and I have to say that Hazard’s reaction to meeting Shaw here was priceless.
Yet again Gregory Ashe ripped out my heart and stomped on it before reassembling it and putting it back (yes, I’m a glutton for punishment!) as I watched Hazard and Somers come closer to a breaking point than ever. But even when things are at their bleakest – and they get pretty bleak – there’s no doubt that they love each other deeply; they’re never going to be the perfect couple – they’re both too damn stubborn for that – but they’re perfect for each other, and that’s what counts.
Transactional Dynamics is a compelling addition to this excellent series, a gripping thriller combined with a rollercoaster ride of emotion and angsty romance, and I can’t wait to see what Mr. Ashe has in store for Hazard and Somerset next.