Undercover is new-to-me author Eliot Grayson’s entry in the Vino and Veritas series set in small town Vermont. It’s light-hearted, and readable, and it’s got a bit of a romantic suspense vibe going on, but in the end it didn’t quite seem sure what sort of story it wanted to be. The suspense angle is way too underdeveloped, and the issues one of the characters is dealing with felt too serious for the overall cutesy tone; plus – spoiler alert – if you’re someone for whom deception is a deal-breaker, then you should probably steer clear of this one.
Grumpy FBI Agent Alec Kaminsky has been sent to investigate a drug smuggling ring operating out of a couple of yoga studios in Burlington, Vermont, a small-scale heroin operation his boss believes is getting the drugs across Lake Champlain hidden in yoga mats.
… who the hell could take drug smugglers who used yoga mats for their product seriously?
Alec asks himself. (And so did I.)
Bored, pissed off and thoroughly disgruntled, Alec spends a bit of time most days hanging out in the bookstore at Vino and Veritas, where he peruses – and scoffs at – books in the true crime section.
Former PhD student Gabe Middleton has noticed Hot Scruffy Leather Jacket Dude leafing through the books in the true crime section and is crushing on him from afar. But even though Gabe has never had any difficulty getting laid, actually approaching someone and talking to them is a different matter and he can’t quite work up the courage to go and talk to the guy. Instead, Gabe buys him some of the books he’s seen him looking through, and asks the clerk to give them to him the next time he comes in.
When Alec next visits the bookshop and is given the bag of books, he’s confused – and then suspicious. Why is someone giving him books about El Chapo and Pablo Escobar? Has Alec been made? Is someone trying to be funny? Is someone trying to bait him? Alec has noticed the cute guy with the purple hair and multiple ear piercings checking him out; he’s hot – even though he’s not Alec’s type. Not at all. (Yeah, right.) But whoever he is, Alec decides he’s exactly the sort of guy who’d sell heroin out of a yoga studio. And that maybe he should stick close – to see what he can find out about the drug ring of course, not because he wants to get into his pants.
Not only does Alec jump to ridiculous conclusions without much foundation, he abandons them just as quickly; he has little evidence to suggest Gabe is a drug smuggler, and when he decides Gabe can’t possibly be involved, he has just as little to go on. I was pleased that he did work out very quickly that Gabe shouldn’t be a suspect, but that was based on… Gabe’s being cute? I don’t know.
But… it just so happens that Gabe’s father owns a yacht-manufacturing business, Middleton Marine – which is top of the list of companies whose vessels and facilities might be being used by the smuggling ring. Alec has no alternative but to investigate and yes, getting close to Gabe would be a good way of getting access to information and the premises. The trouble is, Alec really does like Gabe and the idea of using him isn’t one he relishes at all, but he’s undercover and has a job to do. (Which does beg the question as to what Alec and Gabe actually find to talk about during their dates, seeing as how Gabe doesn’t actually seem to DO anything with his days and Alec can’t talk about what he does with his.)
We all know where this is going and that things are going to crash and burn spectacularly at some point, so there are no real surprises in store here – unless you count Gabe crossing the line into TSTL territory near the end.
On a positive note, I really liked Gabe. He’s a sweet guy, he’s warm and lively and bubbly with a great sense of humour but a poor sense of self-worth; his family treats him like crap, his last boyfriend did a number on him and wrecked his self-confidence, and the guys he’s been with since have only wanted sex or money. And though Alec is able to see that, and wants to show Gabe that he’s worth so much more – and readers know that Alec is really conflicted and genuinely cares about Gabe – it still didn’t sit right with me. Gabe is finally starting to believe that there’s someone interested in him who doesn’t see him as a meal ticket or an easy lay – but instead, he’s being used in another way. Deception in a romance isn’t an automatic no-no for me; it depends on circumstances, and the undercover agent having to play a role to do their job is common in romantic suspense. But it didn’t work for me here.
Despite those criticisms, I zipped through the book in a couple of sittings and I enjoyed the author’s writing style, the humour and the chemistry between the leads. Ultimately however, that wasn’t enough to compensate for the book’s flaws, and I can’t really give Undercover a recommendation.