TBR Challenge – Pressure Head (Plumber’s Mate Mysteries #1) by J.L. Merrow

pressure head

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Some things are better left hidden….

Tom Paretski’s not just a plumber with a dodgy hip courtesy of a schoolboy accident. He also has a sixth sense for finding hidden things. Called in by the police to help locate a body near Brock’s Hollow, he’s staggered to encounter Phil Morrison, his old school crush—and the closeted bully whose actions contributed to Tom’s accident.

Phil’s all grown up now, and Tom’s unwilling attraction to him is back with a vengeance. Phil’s now openly gay—and what’s more, he’s interested in Tom’s personal charms as well as his psychic talents. As a private investigator called in by the dead woman’s parents, Phil is sceptical about Tom’s unusual gift, but nevertheless quick to spot its potential to aid him in his work.

The further they go with the investigation, the less they can ignore their shared past, and the more the pressure and the heat build between them. But Tom isn’t certain he wants to know the secrets he’s helping to uncover, while there’s a murderer on the loose who won’t hesitate to kill again—and this uneasy couple is moving right into his sights.

Rating: B+

I was pretty stumped by this month’s prompt – Animals – not because I don’t like animals, but because I’m not especially drawn to books in which they feature heavily. So my choice this month is kind of ‘animal adjacent’ – the main character has two cats named Arthur and Merlin, which is about as close as I could get!

J.L. Merrow’s Plumber’s Mate Mysteries series consists of six books written between 2012 and 2021 (and I don’t know if book six was the final one) and the PoV character is indeed a plumber, Tom Paretsky, who lives and works in a village near St. Albans in Hertfordshire. But he’s a plumber with a difference; he has some sort of sixth sense that enables him to find things – hidden things, usually, all the guilt and shame and sneakiness involved in the hiding acting as a kind of beacon that often tells him what the hidden thing is likely to be.

He was only six when he found a dead body for the first time.

When Pressure Head begins, Tom receives a call from Dave Southgate, a plain clothes copper who has become a mate, of sorts, asking him for help locating a young woman by the name of Melanie Porter, who has been reported missing. An anonymous tip has led the police to search the woodland near Melanie’s home – but before Tom can get started, he and Southgate are approached by a tall, blond, good-looking man Tom eventually recognises – with a sinking heart – as Phil Morrison, who, when they were at school, was one of the gang of bullies who made his life a misery. Seeing Phil again brings a lot of unpleasant memories back for Tom – not least of which is being hit by a car while he was running from the gang and landing in hospital with a broken pelvis. Southgate is pissed off as well – because Morrison is an ex-copper-turned-private-investigator who has been hired by the Porters to find their daughter, and he doesn’t want him interfering in a police investigation. Tom and Phil waste no time in sniping at each other before Southgate breaks it up and hauls Tom off into the woods – where he finds Melanie’s body.

Tom doesn’t expect to see Phil again – so he’s surprised when he turns up on his doorstep the next morning to tell Tom that Melanie’s parents have asked to meet him. Tom isn’t sure what good he can do – and tells Phil that – but having learned the day before that an old schoolmate is in the frame for the murder, and wanting to do right by him, he agrees to go anyway and to continue to help Phil out with the investigation.

The mystery here is not overly complex, but it’s engaging and kept me guessing along with Tom and Phil as they work their way towards finding out the truth. In many ways, it’s your typical English-country-village cozy mystery (think Midsomer Murders!) – except that the protagonist is a slightly psychic gay plumber with a dodgy hip and a nice line in snark – combined with a burgeoning romance and more than a hint of comedy.

Tom is the sole narrator and I loved his voice. He’s endearingly self-deprecating and funny with a nice turn of descriptive phrase:

By six o’clock the butterflies in my stomach had mutated into flying elephants all flapping around like Dumbo drunk on champagne.

He’s a great character with a strong moral compass and an air of innocence about him despite a bit of a world-weary exterior. He’s angry at discovering that Phil – who had coined the nickname “Poofski at school and been one of his leading tormentors – is queer himself and that the intervening years haven’t done quite enough to enable Tom to forget the stupid crush he had on Phil back then, or prevent it from coming back. We don’t get into Phil’s head, which makes him harder to get to know, but the author does a great job of telling us what we need to know through what she shows us of him through Tom’s eyes, that he’s tightly wound and carrying a fair bit of baggage – and that he is equally smitten with Tom. They have great chemistry and their romance is very much a slow-burn, which makes perfect sense given they’ve got a lot to work through, and I appreciated that even when they start getting on better, the hurt and the bitterness and resentment don’t simply disappear. They’ll be getting along fine when something will trip them up and they lash out, which felt realistic under the circumstances. Healing is a slow process.

Tom and Phil are both complex, flawed individuals, and although Tom is the easier to like of the two, Phil’s character development is really well done. There’s a small but well-drawn secondary cast, too; I enjoyed Tom’s friendship with Southgate, and Tom’s best friend Gary – a campanologist – and his new boyfriend Julian, a dwarf ex-porn star with attitude for miles – are a hoot.

Pressure Head is a lot of fun, and ends with the mystery solved and a firm HFN for Tom and Phil. I definitely plan to continue with the series.

3 thoughts on “TBR Challenge – Pressure Head (Plumber’s Mate Mysteries #1) by J.L. Merrow

  1. I am generally picky about first person narration (I’m old and set in my old cranky ways), but I was cruising the sample, loving the writing voice and the humor, fully lost in the world the author was creating–until we got to the throwaway fatphobic comment. (If you want to characterize someone as lazy, don’t use the “he was fat because too many donuts” joke, that’s fatphobic–and if you didn’t mean to characterize them as lazy, why add that line?). I gritted my teeth and kept reading because I really dug the author’s voice, but before the sample was done, there was another one.

    Given my overwhelming TBR (both print and digital) can be seen from a different galaxy, I think I’ll give this one a pass (even as I whine, because I did like the writing in the sample a lot)

    1. I’m picky about first person, especially when it’s single PoV, but it works well here. I honestly don’t recall the comments you mention, though.

      1. The first one is when we are introduced to the cop (“Dave was a big bloke, by which I mean a bit too fond of beer and takeaways”) and the second about Tom’s friend (“Gary made a face. He’s one of those blokes who are not exactly fat but soft all over like an overstuffed teddy bear, although in his case it conceals a quite respectably muscled upper body”).

        Though, on second reading, the second instance bothers me less, the first one still rankles.

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