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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

Orientation (Borealis Investigations #1) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by Charlie David

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Shaw and North are best friends, private detectives, and in danger of losing their agency. A single bad case, followed by crippling lawsuits, has put them on the brink of closing shop. Until, that is, a client walks into their Benton Park office.

Matty Fennmore is young, blond, and beautiful, and he’s in danger. When he asks for Shaw and North’s help foiling a blackmail scheme, the detectives are quick to accept.

The conspiracy surrounding Matty runs deeper than Shaw and North expect. As they dig into the identity of Matty’s blackmailer, they are caught in a web that touches politicians, the local LGBT community, and the city’s police.

An attack on Matty drives home the rising stakes of the case, and Shaw and North must race to find the blackmailer before he can silence Matty. But a budding romance lays bare long-buried feelings between Shaw and North, and as their relationship splinters, solving the case may come at the cost of their friendship.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

Orientation is the first book in Gregory Ashe’s latest series of romantic suspense novels, and it features two long-standing friends who run a detective agency in St. Louis. Mr. Ashe has rapidly become one of my favourite authors; he writes incredibly well-constructed, twisty mysteries and combines them with brilliantly written, superbly developed and complex relationships between his principal characters that just ooze sexual tension and make you want to bang their heads together at the same time as you’re rooting for them to see what’s in front of their noses and just kiss already!

North McKinney and Kingsley Shaw Wilder Aldrich met in their freshman year of college and have been pretty much inseparable ever since. They’re like chalk and cheese – North comes from a blue-collar family of construction workers, while Shaw was born into wealth; North comes across as a hardened cynic whereas Shaw is all wide-eyed innocence… yet something about them just clicked eight years earlier and they’ve been best friends ever since. North was also there for Shaw during the worst time of Shaw’s life; at the end of freshman year, Shaw and his boyfriend Carl were attacked by the West End Slasher, a crazed serial killer who was murdering young gay men across the city. Carl was killed and Shaw was critically injured, but although Shaw recovered physically, the mental scars took much longer to heal, and if it hadn’t been for North’s refusal to let his friend sink into depression and despair, he might not have made it.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Declination (Borealis Investigations #3) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Shaw and North are together. Finally. After eight years of knowing each other and loving each other and slipping past each other, they’ve finally told each other how they feel. Borealis Investigations is growing, and they have a major prospective client on the line. Everything is finally moving the way it should.

Until the night Shaw receives a phone call telling him that Detective Jadon Reck, his former boyfriend, has been attacked.

At the request of Jadon’s partner, Shaw and North begin an investigation into the attack. But nothing is at it seems. City police are working to cover up evidence faster than Shaw and North can find it, and the motive for the attack seems impossible to unravel.

When a conspiracy of dirty cops takes action against Shaw and North, the two detectives realize they are running out of time. They have to get answers about the attack on Jadon before they lose their own lives. But Shaw knows there are things worse than death. And one of them has come back for him, to finish what he started seven years before.

The West End Slasher has returned.

Rating: A-

Note: This is a series featuring overarching plotlines so there will be spoilers for the previous books in this review.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Declination, the third book in Gregory Ashe’s terrific Borealis Investigations series featuring private investigators North McKinney and Shaw Aldrich. While these stories are predominantly mysteries, there’s a strong romantic thread running through them, too; and although the main mystery plots in each of the previous books has been tied up by the end, there are overarching storylines running throughout all three novels in the set which mean that they really should be read in order so as to fully understand the nature of the relationship between the two leads and the important backstory which underpins the plot.

North and Shaw are best friends as well as business partners, and they share a complicated and troubled history.  We’ve watched them yearn for each other, burn up the pages with unresolved sexual tension and deliberately avoid talking about their feelings for one another for two books, but that changed at the end of the last one, and when Declination opens, North and Shaw are – at last – a couple.  Things are far from ideal however, as Shaw continues to suffer the anxiety and panic attacks during sex which started following his involvement with a duplicitous client who tried to kill him.  Shaw has wanted North so badly for so long that he fears losing him should the other man ever work out just how messed up he is, so Shaw is trying to deal with his issues on his own while desperately trying to prevent North from finding out the truth.

The main plot thread that has run through the series concerns the identity of the West End Slasher, the serial killer who, eight years earlier, killed Shaw’s boyfriend in a vicious attack that also left Shaw critically injured.  Shaw has long been convinced that the wrong man was imprisoned for the Slasher’s crimes, and at the end of Orientation (book one), he came into possession of a video clip that gave him his first real lead in tracking down the actual murderer. When the supposed Slasher was killed in prison the day before Shaw was due to visit him, and when, during their last investigation, he and North kept running up against members of the St. Louis PD’s LGBT task force who were obviously hiding something and wanted to get North and Shaw out of the way, Shaw became even more convinced of the existence of a police cover-up.  And at the end of Triangulation, North and Shaw were sent a message that was an unmistakable threat.  Detective Jadon Reck, Shaw’s ex, arrived on their doorstep, beaten and bloody, with a photograph of North pinned to his jacket and the words “he’s next” carved into his chest.

The events of Declination take place a few months after those of the previous book. After catching up with a small-time thief they’ve been asked to take into the Circuit Attorney’s office, North and Shaw bump into Jadon, who is back at work, but obviously not doing so well. That night, Shaw receives a call from Jadon’s work partner, who tells him that Jadon has been hospitalised following another attack – and this time is in a really bad way. The police are trying to spin it as a suicide attempt, but Shaw is convinced that Jadon has been targeted because of his association with him and North and their continued search for the truth about the West End Slasher.

While Shaw is struggling (and often failing) to process so many things – about the attack years before, about what happened with Matty Fenmore, about his feelings for North – North is coming to realise that even though he and Shaw have lived practically in each other’s pockets for years, Shaw is slowly turning into someone he doesn’t know. Concerned about the toll the investigation is taking on the man he loves, North tries to persuade Shaw to take a step back and work with one of their new clients while North continues the investigation into the Slasher, but Shaw can’t. His need to get to the truth is too tangled up with the trauma of the attack and his desire to just be ‘normal’ again; he’s become fixated on finding the killer, seeing it as a way of achieving some sort of closure and getting his life back. (I admit that I couldn’t help wondering why Shaw wasn’t getting professional help; he mentions a therapist, but from North’s dismissive reaction, I inferred the therapist wasn’t very good!)

Amid the chaos of betrayal, corruption and murder, with North and Shaw not knowing who they can trust and that a step in the wrong direction could mean it’s their last step, Gregory Ashe brings the Slasher plotline to a close in a heart-breaking, shocking and completely unexpected manner. He’s an excellent plotter; even the most random of threads often turns out to have significance and he weaves them skilfully in and out of the narrative to create a complex, satisfying whole that kept me on the edge of my seat. He’s equally adept at character and relationship development, and continues to steer North and Shaw’s romance in a positive direction while also making it clear that they’ve got a long way to go, and I liked the honesty of that. There’s no question these two are committed and deeply in love, but they know they have work to do to build a life together and they’re prepared to do it. Mr. Ashe also writes wonderful dialogue and the banter between North and Shaw is sharp and funny, even as it serves to provide insight into their minds and relationship, and to demarcate the dynamic between them at the same time as it propels the story forward.

Declination is a clever, fast-paced and absorbing novel that brings this storyline to a nail-biting close, and leaves North and Shaw in a good place (together) and on the brink of a new direction in their careers. But this isn’t the last we’re going to hear of them; the book ends with… not really a cliffhanger, but definitely a hint of more to come, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

Criminal Past (Hazard and Somerset #6) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by Tristan James

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

It all starts to go wrong at the shooting gallery. Emery Hazard and his boyfriend, John-Henry Somerset, just want to enjoy the day at the Dore County Independence Fair. At the shooting gallery, though, Hazard comes face to face with one of his old bullies: Mikey Grames. Even as a drugged-out wreck, Mikey is a reminder of all the ugliness in Hazard’s past. Worse, Mikey seems to know something Hazard doesn’t – something about the fresh tension brewing in town.

When the Chief of Police interrupts Hazard’s day at the fair, she has a strange request. She doesn’t want Hazard and Somers to solve a murder. She wants them to prevent one. The future victim? Mayor Sherman Newton – a man who has tried to have Hazard and Somers killed at least once.

Hazard and Somers try to work out the motive of the man threatening Newton, and the trail leads them into a conspiracy of corrupt law enforcement, white supremacists, and local politicians. As Hazard and Somers dig into the case, their search takes them into the past, where secrets have lain buried for twenty years.

Determined to get to the truth, Hazard finds himself racing for answers, but he discovers that sometimes the past isn’t buried very deep. Sometimes, it isn’t dead. Sometimes, it isn’t even past. And almost always, it’s better left alone.

Rating: Narration: B+; Content: B+

Criminal Past is the sixth book in Gregory Ashe’s series of mystery novels featuring detectives Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset, and it concludes the story arcs that have run throughout the series. It’s longer than the other books (clocking in at 18+ hours), but the story is gripping and the interplay between the two leads is so sharp, so funny and so gut-wrenching that it’s easy to get lost in.

Note: There are spoilers for the other books in the series in this review.

Way back at the start of the series, we learned that Detective Emery Hazard had returned to his Missouri hometown of Wahredua for the first time in more than fifteen years, determined to find out the truth behind his first boyfriend’s suicide. That storyline, along with several others that have been quietly humming along in the background of the cases Hazard and his partner, John-Henry Somerset, have worked over the course of the series, are slowly, inexorably and skilfully brought together in Criminal Past, as Hazard and Somers confront police corruption, white supremacists and a wide-reaching old-boy network that will go to any lengths to preserve the status quo. And at the same time, they’re both forced to face many unpleasant truths about their pasts and to question whether their newly-forged romantic relationship can ever work given the issues that have lain between them for so many years.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Triangulation (Borealis Investigations #2) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After a recent case with a treacherous client, North and Shaw are ready to go back to work building Borealis Investigations. They’re also ready to go back to dodging their feelings for each other, with neither man ready to deal with the powerful emotions the Matty Fennmore case stirred up. Everything is getting back to normal when their secretary asks for help: her girlfriend’s boss has gone missing.

Shep Collins runs a halfway house for LGBTQ kids and is a prominent figure in St. Louis’s gay community. When he disappears, however, dark truths begin to emerge about Shep’s past: his string of failed relationships, a problem with disappearing money, and his work, years before, as one of the foremost proponents of conversion therapy.

When Shep’s body turns up at the halfway house, the search for a missing person becomes the search for a murderer.

As North and Shaw probe for answers, they find that they are not the only ones who have come looking for the truth about Shep Collins. Their investigation puts them at odds with the police who are working the same case, and in that conflict, North and Shaw find threads leading back to the West End Slasher—the serial killer who almost took Shaw’s life in an alley seven years before. As the web of an ancient conspiracy comes to light, Shaw is driven to find answers, and North faces what might be his last chance to tell Shaw how he really feels.

Rating: A-

Gregory Ashe has become one of my favourite authors over the last year or so, and I’ve been longing to dive into Triangulation, the second book in his Borealis Investigations series ever since I turned the last page on the first book, Orientation, earlier this year.  I’m addicted to the blend of well-constructed mystery, complex, dysfunctional characters and angsty, slow-burn romance I’ve found in his novels; the plotting is tight and full of twists and turns, the romantic chemistry is combustible and his writing is wonderfully assured, ranging from the vividly descriptive to the lyrical, from grin-inducing humour to the pointedly insightful.

Although the mystery central to Orientation (which should be read first) was wrapped up by the end, events contained therein continue to have repercussions throughout Triangulation, so there will be spoilers in this review.

Triangulation picks up a few months after the previous book ended, and sees Borealis Investigations on a much firmer footing than it was when we first met North and Shaw, thanks to an upturn in business following their recent success in apprehending a blackmailer and murderer.  But the Fennmore case threw a ticking time-bomb into the middle the long-standing friendship between the two men, and the resulting wounds are still raw.  Neither of them is ready to admit to the shift in their relationship or work out what it means, even Shaw, who normally loves to talk things through; and North… well he most definitely doesn’t want to go there.

So on the surface at least, things are pretty much back to normal.  North grumbles and snarks his way through the days and Shaw is as upbeat and endearingly enthusiastic as ever.  When their assistant, Pari, asks them to look into the disappearance of her girlfriend’s boss, an LGBTQ youth worker and prominent figure in the St. Louis gay community, North isn’t wild about taking the case, especially when he learns that the man in question, Shep Collins, used to administer conversion therapy to gay teenaged boys.  But Pari’s girlfriend Chuck is distraught, and insists that Collins is a completely different man now; he’s out and married, the kids he works with love him and he sees his work now as a way of atoning for what he did in the past.  North doesn’t want to take the case… but as a result of one of those typical North-and-Shaw roundabout not-conversations, ends up ungraciously agreeing to do so.

North and Shaw start digging for information, and from the outset, they’re confronted with differing accounts of who Collins was and conflicting stories about his last known movements.  Nobody is telling the truth, even Chuck, who was worried enough about the man’s disappearance to hire Borealis to find him in the first place.  But when Collins’ body is found in the trunk of her car, things escalate quickly and Chuck is arrested for murder.  Determined to find out the truth, North and Shaw’s investigation leads them into direct conflict with members of St. Louis P.D.’s LGBT task force, and specifically with two of its detectives, whose interest in the case seems more focused on North and Shaw than on actually finding out who killed Shep Collins.

Running alongside the very cleverly plotted murder mystery are a number of other storylines which the author gradually pulls together with seemingly effortless skill.  In Orientation, readers learned of the brutal attack which almost killed Shaw over seven years earlier, and of the fact that Shaw has never really believed the right man was convicted and imprisoned.  In a surprise twist at the end, Shaw discovered some video footage of the attack which showed the licence plate of the car used by the so-called ‘West End Slasher’  and since then Shaw has been doing some investigating of his own.  He has just received permission to visit the convicted man in prison – but when he goes to meet with him, Shaw is too late.  The ‘Slasher’ died the previous night, and nobody is saying how.

And while all this is going on, North and Shaw are still dancing around their feelings for each other.   They’ve been friends since college, and it was North who pulled Shaw back from the brink after the attack; they know each other inside out and backwards, they finish each other’s sentences, they know how to push each other’s buttons like nobody else, and they’ve spent practically every day together for the last eight years:

They were honest with each other—honest in ways that only people who have known each other for a long time, loved each other for a long time, can be. But what Shaw wanted to say, what he couldn’t quite put into words, was that the honesty between them was, in its own way, also a kind of lie. He wanted to tell North that their honesty glided across smooth water, but that there was an ocean of things below the surface, things they never said. He wanted to tell North that their honesty never went to the things they cared about most: each other.

The tangle of emotions that enmeshes North, Shaw and their complicated relationship is superbly written; their longing for one another is palpable and had my insides tied up in knots on several occasions.  Shaw’s experiences have – unsurprisingly – left him with issues around trust and intimacy; North has finally taken steps to end his crumbling, abusive marriage, and is battling all sorts of inner demons he’s desperate to keep hidden. But with North newly single, the delicate balance in his and Shaw’s relationship is off kilter.  Neither man has allowed themselves to think about the other in terms of anything other than friendship, but after eight years, their true feelings are starting to spill out and won’t be put back in the bottle.

There’s little I didn’t enjoy about this book.  North and Shaw are compelling characters who, on the surface are opposites, but beneath the layers of smartass and snark, are wonderfully in tune, which makes for some truly fantastic banter.  I liked the glimpses we were given of how their friendship began back in their college days, and I thoroughly enjoyed the cameo appearances by Wahredua’s finest (Hazard and Somerset) which drops some hints about where they might be headed in their next series.  The one false note struck in the book – and I found this to be the case in Orientation as well – is the character of Pari, who is aggressive, rude and never seems to do any work. I’d have fired her if she worked for me!

I was completely engrossed by Triangulation from the first word to the last and raced through it in a couple of sittings.  I should mention here that the novel ends on one doozy of a cliffhanger, although book three – Declination – is due out in October, so there’s not too long to wait.  Fans of clever, gritty mysteries featuring complex characters and relationships should check out Borealis Investigations as soon as possible.  I can’t imagine you’ll be sorry you did.

Reasonable Doubt (Detectives Hazard and Somerset #5) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by Tristan James

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

After almost 20 years, Emery Hazard finally has the man he loves. But things with his boyfriend and fellow detective, John-Henry Somerset, are never easy, and they’ve been more complicated lately for two reasons: Somers’s ex-wife and daughter. No matter what Hazard does, he can’t seem to get away from the most important women in his boyfriend’s life.

While Hazard struggles with his new reality (changing dirty diapers, just to start), a bizarre murder offers a distraction. John Oscar Walden, the leader of a local cult, is found dead by the police, and the case falls to Hazard and Somers. The investigation takes the two detectives into the cult’s twisted relationships and the unswerving demands of power and faith.

But the deeper Hazard looks into the cult, the deeper he must look into his own past, where belief and reason have already clashed once. And as Hazard struggles to protect the most vulnerable of Walden’s victims, he uncovers a deeper, more vicious plot behind Walden’s murder, and Hazard finds himself doing what he never expected: racing to save the killer.

Only, that is, if Somers doesn’t need him to babysit.

Rating: Narration: B; Content: A-

Although I’ve only reviewed the first of the Hazard and Somerset audiobooks, Pretty Pretty Boys, I’ve been following the series (in both print and audio), and have now reached book five, Reasonable Doubt, which sees some major changes taking place in the lives of our heroes. And some things – like their seeming inability to read one another – staying very much the same.

Please note that there will be spoilers for the earlier books in the series in this review.

At the end of the last book, Guilt by Association, fans of the series who were rooting for Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset to tell each other what we’ve all known since book one – that they’re stupid in love with each other – finally got their wish. It’s been a difficult road; these two are masters of the art of not saying what they really mean and there’s enough baggage between them to fill a whole fleet of trucks – but at long last they managed to get onto the same page and now, a few months later, are living together as a couple. They continue to be partners at work as well – (I confess to wondering if that would actually be permitted) – and their latest case, the murder of the leader of a religious cult, is one that stirs up some extremely dark and painful memories for Hazard.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Orientation (Borealis Investigations #1) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Shaw and North are best friends, private detectives, and in danger of losing their agency. A single bad case, followed by crippling lawsuits, has put them on the brink of closing shop. Until, that is, a client walks into their Benton Park office.

Matty Fennmore is young, blond, and beautiful, and he’s in danger. When he asks for Shaw and North’s help foiling a blackmail scheme, the detectives are quick to accept.

The conspiracy surrounding Matty runs deeper than Shaw and North expect. As they dig into the identity of Matty’s blackmailer, they are caught in a web that touches politicians, the local LGBT community, and the city’s police.

An attack on Matty drives home the rising stakes of the case, and Shaw and North must race to find the blackmailer before he can silence Matty. But a budding romance lays bare long-buried feelings between Shaw and North, and as their relationship splinters, solving the case may come at the cost of their friendship.

Rating: B+

Orientation is the first book in a new series of mysteries by Gregory Ashe, and in it, he introduces us to North McKinney and Kingsley Shaw Wilder Aldrich, who own and run a detective agency in St. Louis.  They’ve been friends – best friends – since college even though they couldn’t be more different.  North is from a blue collar family – his father was a construction worker and North himself worked on a fair few building sites before college – while Shaw was born with a whole set of silver spoons in his mouth, and dropped out of college after he was the victim of a hate crime that left him badly injured and killed his then (and first ever) boyfriend.  Even though the perpetrator was subsequently arrested and imprisoned, Shaw has never been sure the right man was convicted, and that – and his experience as a victim of crime – is one of the things that prompted him to become a private investigator.

The author very quickly establishes the nature and strength of the relationship between the two men.  North is gruff, down to earth and often treats Shaw with the kind of affectionate exasperation usually afforded to siblings, while Shaw is inquisitive, bright and enthusiastic with a kind of wide-eyed innocence about him unusual for a man in his mid-twenties.  They’ve got a bit of an odd-couple dynamic going on (Shaw is the ridiculously messy one while North likes things just so), and when they’re working or in a tight spot their banter is so smooth that they practically finish each other’s sentences.  They may be opposites in many ways, but they’re on the same mental wavelength and it’s clear that there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for one another.  It’s also clear they’ve got it pretty bad for each other and have spent years hiding it; North is married (not too happily as becomes apparent as the story progresses) and thinks Shaw only sees him as an obnoxious brother, while Shaw is still struggling, almost eight years after the attack, to trust a man enough to go out on a date with him; and even were that not the case, North is off-limits and doesn’t think of him that way anyway.

The firm they run together, Borealis Investigations, hit a rough patch a few months earlier following a case which saw North shooting a suspect in order to save Shaw’s life. Not only has North’s PI license has been suspended pending appeal, the suspect then dragged him into a costly lawsuit. They haven’t had a case in months, but things start to take an upturn when an attractive, nervous young man makes his way into the office looking for Shaw and asks for help.  North is immediately on his guard, and not just because he sees straight away that the guy has the sort of lost-puppy thing going on that will appeal to Shaw’s protective instincts – and doesn’t like it.  When Matty Fennmore haltingly explains he’s sought them out because he’s being blackmailed, North  – quite sensibly – doesn’t want to go near the case and suggests Matty should go to the police.  But when Matty goes into detail – telling them how he’s been so scared of coming out because of his ultra-religious family and how he can’t go to the police because that will make everything public and his parents will find out –  North knows he’s lost the battle.  Shaw is clearly smitten as well as outraged on Matty’s behalf and reminds North that they need clients and that people like Matty are why they started Borealis in the first place, to help people nobody else can or will help.  North is forced to admit that Shaw is right about one thing – they do need the work.  But he doesn’t have to like it.

As their investigation progresses, North and Shaw gradually realise that there’s more going on than a single act of blackmail, and that the recordings are being used to control and manipulate important people across the city. When Matty is attacked and their main suspect turns up dead it’s clear that the blackmailer is becoming desperate and is willing to do whatever it takes to protect their ‘investment’. But potentially damning information from an unexpected quarter suddenly turns everything on its head and throws a live grenade into the middle of Shaw and North’s friendship which leaves them both devastated. Will they be able to solve the case, repair their tattered relationship… and come out of it alive?

Mr. Ashe has penned an intriguing, gritty mystery which progresses at a good pace and features some colourful and intriguing supporting characters. But as with his earlier Detectives Hazard and Somerset series, the big draw is the likeable, complex but flawed leads and the complicated relationship between them that runs a true gamut of emotion and oozes UST like there’s no tomorrow. There’s obviously a great deal of affection there and the guys know each other extremely well, but there are some things about each other they’ve got completely wrong – and I don’t just mean because neither of them has twigged how the other feels about him. Although the story is told in dual PoVs, Orientation focuses a little more on Shaw than on North, on showing readers who he is, how the trauma he suffered has affected him and on exploring his feelings for North and their relationship. We get similar insights from North’s perspective, too, although we don’t learn as much about his life outside of his work; up until a certain point, we only know he’s married, he’s not happy and that he’s keeping something – something big – from Shaw. The author drip feeds various pieces of information about their lives together – the attack Shaw barely survived, the shooting that may have sunk North’s career, and their friendship over the years – but I don’t think he’s given us the full picture yet and I can’t wait to find out more.

The blackmailer plot is wrapped up by the end of the novel, so it works as a standalone although the final chapter sets up what I suspect may be an overarching plotline. I continue to be impressed with the quality of Mr. Ashe’s writing, his insight into character and motivation, and his ability to create memorable characters you can’t help but want to spend time with while at the same time wanting to bang their heads together! North and Shaw have just the sort of angsty, screwed-up relationship that I can’t resist and I’m eagerly awaiting the next instalment of their story. Orientation is an absorbing start to a promising new series and a great place to jump in with this author if you’ve never read his work before.