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Drugs. Sex. Murder. And, if they can squeeze it in, graduation.
When Auggie Lopez returns to Wahredua for his senior year of college, he’s excited about the future: he’s growing his brand as an influencer, he’s almost done with school, and he’s building a life with his boyfriend, Theo. Then Auggie gets a phone call from Howard Cartwright, Theo’s ex—and Cart tells Auggie he’s being framed for murder.
As Auggie and Theo begin to look into the death of a local parole officer, they realize something isn’t right. A gang of armed men almost catches them while they’re searching the victim’s home, a threatening message spray-painted on the victim’s home suggests a personal vendetta, and everyone wants to know about a missing cache of money. The trail leads Auggie and Theo into the dangerous world of the Ozark Volunteers—the local white supremacists who control the region’s drug trade.
After Theo and Auggie are attacked at home, they learn that the stakes might be much, much higher: someone is determined to put a stop to their investigation, no matter what it takes. And the killer, Theo and Auggie suspect, is hiding behind a badge.
It’s Auggie’s final year and Theo’s last year as a grad student at Wroxall College in this final instalment in Gregory Ashe’s The First Quarto series. But of course, there’s no way it’s going to be an easy year for our favourite trouble-magnets. Not only are they once again up to their necks in a complicated and extremely dangerous murder investigation, but their romantic relationship is still undergoing teething problems and is confronted with what is possibly its toughest challenge yet – and no, I’m not talking about the scale of Auggie’s Doritos habit.
As A Fault Against the Dead is book four in a series, it won’t make much sense if you aren’t familiar with what’s gone before; the mysteries in each book are self-contained, but the central relationship is ongoing and there are a number of recurring characters and references to previous situations, so it’s best to go back to the beginning and start with They Told Me I Was Everything. Gregory Ashe’s incredible ability to tell a story, the tight, complex plots and damaged but intensely loveable main characters will make it worth your while.
The mystery plot here kicks off when Auggie unexpectedly gets a phone call from Howard Cartwright, Theo’s late husband’s partner on the job and Theo’s former fuckbuddy, who tells Auggie he’s been arrested for the murder of a local parole officer. Their visit to Cart in jail is awkward to say the least, but boils down to the fact that someone has framed Cart for murder – and he needs Theo and Auggie to find out who and why.
As if that wasn’t enough, their old nemesis, Detective Albert Lender, doesn’t waste any time in catching up with them after they’ve been to see Cart. To their surprise, he actually seems to want them to investigate further – although of course, it doesn’t take long for it to become apparent that there’s something in it for him, namely, a large sum of cash which has gone missing. He wants Theo and Auggie to find it.
The devious mind of Gregory Ashe has come up with a real doozy here as Theo and Auggie are plunged into the murky world of the local drug trade while the complicated web of lies, blackmail and murder becomes even more tangled and the threats to life and limb pile up. Not only is Lender breathing down their necks, they’ve got to contend with angry, violent drug dealers, a dodgy sherrif and someone who seems to have more clout and more at stake than even Lender does – who is trying to force them to stop their investigation
All that would be more than enough for any couple to handle, but Theo and Auggie are still dealing with some intensely personal issues that mean they’re really not singing from the same hymn sheet as far as their relationship is concerned. They’ve both been through such a lot in their relatively young lives, and Theo’s largely untreated trauma, specifically, is continuing to throw up barriers between them. The conflict here is signalled early on when Auggie makes an offhand comment about where they’ll be this time next year, and Theo subtly freezes. In the previous book (The Fairest Show) the conflict was mainly about the way Theo’s desperate need to keep Auggie safe was causing him to disregard Auggie’s feelings and wishes, and how Theo needed to recognise that Auggie is an adult and to start treating him as one. Theo seems to have been working on that, but the other – much bigger – issue that has always been lurking in the background, and which led to some of the poor life choices Theo has made (his drinking, his addiction to pain medication among others) finally blows up in their faces – namely his belief that, at thirty-two, he’s washed up. (In fact, he’s believed that all the way through the series.) He’s been struggling financially since his husband Ian died, he’s burdened with terrible guilt over the accident that killed Ian and left their daughter, Lana, disabled – he’s carrying guilt over the death, years before, of his brother Luke from an overdose, he’s estranged from his very conservative family because he’s gay… and then into his life comes Auggie, beautiful, charming, funny, clever (young) Auggie, so full of life and the one bright thing in Theo’s life, and all Theo has ever really done is get Auggie hurt and drag him down. (As Theo sees it.) I’m indebted to a poster over at the author’s Facebook group for their insight into Theo’s responses to trauma – of which he’s suffered great deal in a fairly short time – which helped me to a clearer understanding than I had of why Theo thinks and acts as he does, why he is so convinced he’s doing the right thing by trying to wrap Auggie up in cotton wool, or continually avoiding any discussion of their future together. He’s lost (or been rejected by) everyone he’s ever loved, and contemplating a future or happiness (or a happy future) is incredibly difficult for him because hurt and pain has been the default for so very long.
Auggie is coming at the relationship from completely the opposite direction. His own upbringing is driving him to want stability and commitment – although he doesn’t quite realise how those two situations are linked yet. The youngest of three brothers, all with different dads, and with a mother who is so self-centred that she doesn’t really care about any of them, he’s really been brought up by his oldest brother, Fer, who is Theo’s age, and who, despite his constant stream of funny and inventive insults, clearly adores Auggie and would do anything for him. The age gap and parental role, however, mean that Fer is just as guilty, in his own way, as Theo is of shielding Auggie, and that he, also like Theo, has tried to keep certain things and realities from Auggie in order to protect him. The instability of Auggie’s home life (which we saw some of in The Fairest Show) and dysfuctionality of his family is clearly driving his need to make plans, when Theo’s life is – and can only be – about the now. With two such diametrically opposed positions, it’s really hard to see how they are ever going to be able to reconcile them, and it’s heartbreaking to watch as the gulf between them grows, as Auggie’s frustration with his boyfriend’s attitude starts turning into resentment and Theo’s walls get thicker and higher.
Gregory Ashe is a master of writing characters you can easily fall in love with while at the same time wanting to defenestrate them, and also of being able to combine a complex plot composed of lots of moving parts with some really profound character and relationship development. He reveals so much about who these men are and where they’re coming from, often in just a short speech or moment of description, and despite the heavy subject matter, there’s still room for humour and good-natured banter, a bit of steam and moments of amazing tenderness and understanding.
A lot of that humour comes from Auggie’s interactions with Fer – who is one of those characters who has taken on a life of his own and become a firm reader favourite (many of us are really hoping Mr. Ashe can find a story for him!) – and I loved seeing a clean Chuy (the middle brother) and Auggie having a genuine, affectionate and adult conversation. It was bittersweet, though, to see the brother Chuy could have been (to both Fer and Auggie), and their big scene together is key to giving Auggie some real insight into Theo’s mindset as an addict and how that might be affecting his attitude towards the future.
Although we’re saying goodbye to Theo and Auggie – for now (they’ll be back in the planned Asheverse crossover, tentativelty titled Iron on Iron) – we leave them in a much better place, with a better understanding of each other, and an incredibly sweet demonstration on Theo’s part of his commitment to Auggie and to doing the work he needs to do on himself so that they can move forward together. Having seen them five years on in the most recent Hazard and Somerset series, he’s certainly made progress. (And speaking of H&S, Somers’ cameos in this book show we’re almost caught up with Pretty Pretty Boys in the Wahredua timeline.)
A Fault Against the Dead brings The First Quarto series to a satisfying close by way of a tense, nail-biting climax which will have readers on the edge of their seats (or reading through their fingers!) and then follows it up with a beautifully understated and hopeful HEA. Theo and Auggie have become two of my favourite Asheverse characters, so while I’m sorry to see them metaphorically riding off into the sunset into a much quieter life, I’m delighted they’ve been given the happy ending they deserve.
Small side note: I’m probably in the minority, but I’m not a fan of the new covers for the series; the type is incredibly hard to read against the dark background, and is practically invisible in thumbnails. )