The Rational Faculty (Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords #1) by Gregory Ashe

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Three months have passed since Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset faced a madman and lived to tell about it.

Three months have passed since Emery Hazard resigned from his job as a detective.

Three months can be too long and too short, all at the same time.

On Halloween, a professor at the local college is murdered in his apartment, in front of dozens of witnesses. Then the killer disappears. Somers is assigned the case—and a new partner.

While Somers investigates the murder, Hazard struggles to find purpose in his new freedom. Despite his decision to stay away, he finds himself drawn to the case. But he’s no longer police, and in the small town of Wahredua, not all of his former colleagues are happy to see him investigating another crime.

When the sheriff’s son and husband go missing, though, the case becomes more complicated than either Hazard or Somers had expected. And soon they learn that someone else is manipulating events in Wahredua.

Someone who is very interested in Emery Hazard.

Rating: A

It’s no secret that Gregory Ashe has quickly become one of my favourite authors.  I first came to his Hazard and Somerset series in audio; I saw Pretty Pretty Boys in a “Coming Soon” list at Audible and requested a copy to review for AudioGals… and was completely hooked on the author’s style of gritty, twisty suspense – and even more hooked on the angsty, screwed-up relationship between the two leads and the gradual revelation of their complicated history.  I continued reading and listening to the series, which went from strength to strength as Hazard and Somers worked some difficult and dangerous cases, building trust and a friendship of sorts before finally facing up to the truth; that they’ve wanted each other since they were sixteen years old but a history like theirs is far from easy to overcome.

Criminal Past, book six in the series, brought a number of interlocking story arcs to a close and ended with Hazard and Somers – who had both been through hell – pretty banged up, but alive and finally feeling as though the past had been laid to rest and ready to move forward with their lives together.  Three months after those traumatic events however, things are far from perfect.  The guys have bought a house together, they share the parenting of three-year-old Evie with her mother, Somers’ ex-wife, and Hazard knows he should be happy. But he’s struggling with the fact that he’s no longer a detective – he sacrificed his own career in order to save Somers’ at the end of the last book – and is finding it difficult to deal with his unemployed status and with the PTSD he’s experiencing as a result of the events that went down in the summer with Mikey Grames.   Hazard’s deep seated insecurities about his attractiveness and self-worth – fostered by previous boyfriends who treated him like crap – only make things worse; he’s waiting for Somers to decide he’s not worth it and walk away.  He’s desperately trying to pretend everything is fine, although Somers – of course – knows exactly what Hazard is doing but is at a loss as to what to do to help him.  He feels guilty that he’s still got his job and Hazard doesn’t, and he’s also taking quite a ribbing from his colleagues, almost all of whom make jokes about the fact that Hazard was the brains of their partnership and that Somers is all but useless without him – and he’s keeping it to himself, not wanting to rock the boat at home or make Hazard feel worse than he already does. They’re treading on eggshells around each other, not wanting to say or do something to make things worse but not knowing how to make things better, and it’s heart-breaking, especially considering what they went through in finally finding their way to one another.  It’s also brilliantly and completely in character for the two of them; although they’ve got better at communicating about the things that matter, they’ve both fallen back on their old patterns and are hiding behind façades of “it’s fine”;  although their physical scars may have healed, the mental ones have not, and they’re floundering.

Somers has been back at work for a little while, and his latest case involves a murder at Wroxall College where the victim – a professor – was stabbed to death at a Halloween costume party.  For a crime that took place in a crowded place, there are surprisingly few witnesses,  there’s little evidence and  the perpetrator escaped easily.  And those witnesses with anything to offer are reticent, hostile and uncooperative by turns, so with nothing but dead-ends on the horizon, Somers – knowing that perhaps he shouldn’t – talks things through with Hazard, the best detective he knows. As Hazard’s mind begins to work along familiar lines, finding patterns and making connections, he finds himself engaged for the first time in months, a renewed sense of purpose energising him and helping him to, at least for a little while, keep his demons at bay.  He listens to Somers, offers advice, but then, acting on his own instinct, makes an important discovery  – one which complicates his relationship with Somers (giving rise to yet more ribbing and embarrassment) and with the Wahredua PD in general.  And when Hazard is approached by one of the witnesses in the case and asked to investigate the murder separately from the police, it complicates things between Hazard and Somers even more and further threatens their already fragile relationship.

Once again, Gregory Ashe has penned a wonderfully complex and gripping murder mystery with twists, turns and red-herrings a-plenty and has very cleverly found a way to keep Hazard and Somers working a case – and together for most of the book – despite their change in circumstances.   But as with the other books in the series, the whole thing – the novel, the investigation – pivots around the ups and downs of the central relationship, characterised by Mr. Ashe’s unerring ability to zero in on what makes these guys tick and to examine, with pinpoint – and sometimes painful – accuracy, their flaws and insecurities.  He has the most amazing ability to peel back layer after layer to reveal raw truths and hurts that feel so very real – and those moments when Hazard and Somers are finally able admit to those truths and hurts are among the very finest – and favourite – moments in the book.

I’ve said elsewhere that one of the things that has made the Hazard and Somerset books so refreshing to read is the fact that this is one of only a few series I can think of that doesn’t end once the central couple gets together.  Here, we’re shown what happens after the ILYs and how, in the case of this particular couple, there’s still a lot of work to do if they’re going to make it in the long term.  So I was relieved to discover that Mr. Ashe hasn’t resorted to breaking up Hazard and Somers in order to generate some romantic tension; instead he has them working through all the shit life is throwing at them individually and as a couple while they’re also working a complicated investigation, which is a much more realistic approach, and one I greatly appreciated.

As always, there’s a colourful secondary cast, some new, like Somers’ new partner Gray Dulac, a young, hip, gay detective who thrives on fist bumps and calls everyone “bro” – Hazard’s reactions to him are frequently hilarious – and some we’ve met before, such as the creepy and insidious Ozark Volunteers, whose presence never fail to make a shiver run up and down my spine.  And cleverly and carefully planted but largely hidden amid the chaos of the investigation and Hazard and Somers’  volatile relationship are the threads of the storyline which seems likely to be the overarching one of the series – and I can’t wait to find out more.

Utterly compelling and immensely satisfying, The Rational Faculty is a real tour de force and a superb start to this second set of Hazard and Somerset stories.  Gregory Ashe’s writing is sharp, focused and laced with humour despite the grittiness of the action and the difficulties being faced by our heroes, and he seamlessly blends together the different elements of the novel to create a truly un-put-downable read.

Note: There are some gruesome scenes later in the book which some may find upsetting.

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