Authors and readers alike seem to love series. When an author builds a compelling world, one cannot help wanting to revisit again and again. So, with this month being series catch-up month on the TBR Challenge, we both went back into beloved series. Caz went with a gritty mystery that is one of a series following an m/m relationship while Lynn read one of the Rannoch/Fraser novels, a historical romantic suspense series that follows the leads’  marriage of convenience as it develops into love.

Paternity Case by Gregory Ashe

Paternity Case is the third in Gregory Ashe’s series of novels featuring two detectives based in the small Missouri town of Wahredua, Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset.  These are gritty, complex stories that are practically impossible to put down once started; the mysteries are twisty and really well-conceived but at the heart of each book – and the series – is the complicated, fucked-up relationship between the two principals, a pair of stubborn, emotionally constipated individuals with a dark and  painful shared history that stretches back twenty years.

While each of the six books in the series boasts a self-contained mystery, there is also an overarching storyline that runs throughout, so I’d strongly recommend starting at the beginning with book one, Pretty Pretty Boys.  There’s probably enough backstory in this book for a newcomer, but if you do jump in here, you’ll miss out on a lot of relationship development and exploration of Hazard and Somerset’s history – which is absolutely integral to the series as a whole.  Gregory Ashe knows how to create sexual tension so thick it can be cut with a knife; this is slow-burn romance at its finest – and possibly most frustrating! – so don’t go into this series expecting a quick HFN/HEA.

A little bit of background. Detective Emery Hazard moves back to his small home town of Wahredua after being fired from his job in St. Louis (for reasons we don’t yet know).  The town doesn’t hold many good memories for him; the only openly gay kid at school, he didn’t have many friends and was badly bullied by three boys who made his life a misery for years.  Of these, one is now dead, another is a broken-down mess, and the third… Hazard doesn’t know what happened to him, the charming, popular, movie-star handsome John-Henry Somerset, son of one of the town’s wealthiest families – until he turns up at his new station and meets his new partner.

Yep.

The first book sees Hazard and Somerset – who now goes by Somers – starting to work though the issues that lie between them, although it’s going to take more than an apology and the new, grudging, respect Hazard slowly develops for his new partner’s ability as a detective, and Somers’ admiration for Hazard’s intellect and his ability to work his way through complicated puzzles and construct solutions, to fix things between them.  Somers is almost desperate to prove to Hazard that he’s changed – and he really has – since they were in college, but Hazard is cautious and doesn’t want to have anything to do with him that isn’t work-related.  Somers is garrulous and quick to tease the much more serious Hazard, and on the surface they’ve got a bit of an ‘odd couple’ thing going on; but underneath, it’s all much darker and more complicated as the feelings that sparked between them twenty years earlier come roaring back to life.

For two books, readers have watched them struggle to adjust to their working partnership and ignore the intense mutual attraction that neither wants to acknowledge.  They’ve had their heated moments, but are both in deep denial; Somers has been trying (unsuccessfully) to work things out with his estranged wife (with whom he has a two-year-old daughter), while Hazard has embarked on a relationship with a gorgeous (and much younger) grad-student, Nico Flores. Both men are involved with someone who just doesn’t ‘get’ them or understand their dedication to their job or loyalty to each other, especially Nico, who can’t understand how Hazard can bear to work with Somers considering their history.

Paternity Case opens as Hazard and Somers are getting ready to go out – on a double-date, of all things; Hazard and Nico, Somers and his almost-ex-wife, Cora.  The reader already knows this is one of the worst ideas in history and a train-wreck in waiting, but before things can get too uncomfortable, Somers receives a phone call from his father, who practically orders him to the family home during the Somerset’s annual pre-Christmas party.  It’s not a case, but Somers insists Hazard accompanies him anyway, and they arrive to find a very drunk – or stoned – old guy wearing nothing but a Santa hat in the middle of the Somerset’s living room.  As Somers and Hazard try to find out what on earth is going on, the lights go out and shots are fired, one killing a young woman and five of the others landing in Glenn Somerset’s chest but somehow not killing him.

Naked-Santa is deemed to be responsible and is taken into custody, but both Hazard and Somers are immediately seeing things that don’t add up. And when they arrive at the hospital to discover that the suspect has been shot and killed by another detective, it ratchets up suspicions they’ve held for a while now that one of their colleagues is on the take.  The hints of political corruption and intrigue that have appeared in the earlier books now become something more solid, and when Hazard and Somers are ordered to drop their investigation they smell more than just one rat.  Their boss insists there’s nothing to investigate, but neither man buys that; for Somers this is personal – he might not get along with Glenn Somerset, but the man is still his father – and Hazard isn’t about to sit idly by and watch his partner self-destruct or put himself in danger without someone to watch his back.

While both characters get equal billing in the series title, the previous two books have focused a little more on Hazard as the main protagonist. Here, that focus shifts to Somers, and as he starts to unravel, readers are shown more of what lies beneath that gorgeous, wise-cracking exterior – a man who doesn’t like himself much and who is weighed down by the guilt of a terrible betrayal he wrought years ago.  Mr. Ashe very deftly delineates Somers’ toxic family situation, and his insight into the power dynamics that existed when Hazard and Somerset were kids is completely on the nose.  We see a different side to the normally personable, laid-back detective as the author peels away the layers to reveal  the loneliness lying at his core as he is forced to face up to some painful and unwelcome truths about his long-buried feelings, and to reach some significant conclusions as a result.

Both men are guarded and not easy to understand. They talk a lot – well, Somers does – but rarely – if ever – say what they mean, and right from the start, their conversations have been as much about what they don’t say as what they do. They’re both excellent detectives; Hazard is precise and logical while Somers has the kind of emotional intelligence that makes him a really good ‘people person’ – and yet they’re both blind when it comes to each other.  While the investigation is the focus of the plot, the intensity of the underlying love story permeates the book; these two are stupid in love but certain the other doesn’t feel the same, and the emotional punch the author delivers at the end is simply masterful.

The secondary cast is strongly-drawn, the plot is cleverly constructed and Gregory Ashe’s writing ranges from the vividly descriptive –

At this time of year, when darkness came early, Warhedua looked like the last place of light and warmth in a burned-out world. Ahead of them, the sodium lights dropped away until the only thing illuminating the asphalt was the Interceptor’s headlights, bluish-white, the color of fresh snow if it had somehow transformed into light.

to the lyrical –

Love isn’t a choice. Love is collision. Love is catastrophe. Somers had thought he’d understood. He thought he’d known how dangerous those words were, he thought he’d sensed how deeply Emery Hazard had upset his life.

But he’d had no idea.

There are moments of observation and insight so sharp it’s almost painful, and the circumlocutory conversations that characterise Hazard and Somers’ interactions are both completely absorbing and a masterclass in how to say something without ever actually uttering the words.

I’ve rambled on long enough, so I’ll close by saying that if you’re a fan of m/m mysteries and romantic suspense, then you’re going to want to start on the Hazard and Somerset series right away.  I promise you’ll thank me later 😉

Grade: A                          Sensuality Rating: Subtle

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo


Beneath a Silent Moon by Tracy Grant

Note: This review contains slight spoilers for earlier books in the series.

If you’ve not been reading Tracy Grant, you really have been missing out. Her Rannoch/Fraser series of romantic suspense features a compelling relationship, fascinating characters and worldbuilding that I just love. If you’re not familiar with the series, it may require a touch of explanation. The series originally started with two books published by Avon, Daughter of the Game (later reissued as Secrets of a Lady) and Beneath a Silent Moon. Those books featured the escapades of Charles and Melanie Fraser. The publisher did not renew for further books in the series, but Grant was later picked up by Kensington. The one hitch was that she would need to find new names for her characters. So, Charles and Melanie became Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch.

It takes some getting used to, but the whole series is worth the added touch of effort. If you check out any of these books on Goodreads, you’ll find the series listed in chronological order with a note from the author’s website about suggested reading order. Personally, I skipped over the first couple of e-novellas and started with Vienna Waltz. I’ve been able to keep up with the series without confusion and that particular novel was a very strong entry to the series. I’ve not reviewed all the Rannoch/Fraser books for AAR since I started reading years after the books were released, but I have been reviewing them on my Goodreads account as I read.

For those not familiar, Charles Fraser is a British diplomat who worked as a spy during the war. He has connections to a very powerful aristocratic family, and his star is on the rise. During the war, he married the pregnant Melanie, a young Frenchwoman, and accepted her child as his own. Charles is aware that Melanie was involved in spying herself, and she has in fact assisted him on some of his diplomatic missions overseas. However, what is known to the reader but not to Charles is that at least in the beginning, Melanie was working at cross-purposes to Charles. Melanie feels deeply conflicted concerning her past loyalties and this conflict has been gradually working to a head over the course of the series.

This particular installment of the series is set in 1817. The war and related intrigues are now in the past, and the Frasers must return to England, where Charles has duties and obligations as the oldest son. As the novel opens, everyone is present at a party at which Charles’ father Kenneth announces his engagement to Honoria Talbot, the niece and ward of Kenneth’s best friend. Given that Honoria is much younger (she was a childhood love of Charles Fraser, in fact), the news stuns more than a few in attendance and causes great family consternation.

Shortly after these startling events, Charles and Melanie are called out to meet an old contact from their days in Spain. As they go to meet him, the man is shot down by a sniper. Before he dies, he mentions Honoria to them. Given that Honoria has no known ties to espionage, diplomacy or the war, this is understandably quite unsettling.

From here, the action eventually shifts to the country estate of Dunmykel and a shadowy group known as the Elsinore League,thought to be a ring of former Bonapartists. The entire cast of friends and family heads to Dunmykel for a house party celebrating Kenneth Fraser’s betrothal and there the family intrigues and spycraft start to collide. The tale is a complex but very interesting one. The complicated family dynamics and long-held secrets start simmering to the surface and mingle with the outside action to create quite a lot of tension.

Because the story contains several layers of conflict to it, I sometimes found myself rereading scenes trying to figure out what made some of these characters tick. And seeing Charles with his family for such a prolonged period did give me insight into him that I didn’t have before. Given his father’s behavior, his habit of keeping things bottled up inside made a lot more sense. I could see how much he did not want to be like his father, and much is shown in this book of how he and Melanie try to grow closer to one another. They truly did start off with a marriage of convenience, over the course of the books, it has deepened into one of passion and complex emotion.

As with all of Grant’s books that I’ve read, the writing here is stylistically very good. She writes very vivid scenes, and her characters tend to be complex and layered. In most of her books, she is weaving together many strands of plot and that is the case here as well. I did note there were a few more bobbles with the pacing and structure than in some of her other novels. However, while this is the seventh installment in the series, it was actually the second book in the series that Grant wrote.  With that knowledge, I can see where her writing has grown over time, with some of the roughness I saw particularly in the latter half of this book being smoothed out by the time later novels were published.

Even with some rushed action and a couple dangling plot threads, Beneath a Silent Moon is still a very engaging read. I have enjoyed each of my trips to this version of Regency England, and I highly recommend this to anyone who likes historical mysteries and romantic suspense. If you’re new to the series, I would recommend starting either with one of the opening novellas or with the excellent Vienna Waltz.

 

Grade:       B            Sensuality Rating: subtle

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

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