A Fault Against the Dead (The First Quarto #4) by Gregory Ashe

a fault against the dead

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

Rating: A

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. )

The Fairest Show (First Quarto #3) by Gregory Ashe

the fairest show

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A murdered coach. His missing daughter. A sadistic killer.

After a summer apart, Theo and Auggie reunite at the beginning of another school year, determined to make a relationship work in spite of their age difference—and other obstacles. When Wroxall College’s athletic director strongarms Theo into tracking down the school’s missing football coach, though, Theo is determined to keep Auggie safe no matter how much Auggie hates it; Theo has lost too much already.

Everywhere Theo and Auggie go, someone seems set on stopping their search. First, a masked man attacks them and steals important financial paperwork. Then a small-town cop tries to run them off. Even the football players seem determined to keep their silence. And the deeper Theo and Auggie dig, the more they suspect that something much darker is taking place.

An attack on Auggie’s roommate raises a terrifying possibility—that the killer has targeted Auggie as his next victim. Theo and Auggie must hurry to uncover the truth before the killer can silence them, but even if they succeed, the pressure of the investigation and the danger to Auggie’s life may shatter the fragile bond they are building.

Rating: A

Auggie Lopez and Theo Stratford made a few cameo appearances in the most recent Hazard and Somerset series (Arrows in the Hand), but it’s been a while since we’ve read about them in their own series, (to be fair, Mr. Ashe has published a dozen other books in the gap!) so I was delighted to learn that The First Quarto series would be completed this year.

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

The Fairest Show opens in the same way as the other books in the series, with Auggie arriving in Wahredua for the start of a new academic year. This year, though, things are different. Not only is he living off campus (he’s renting an appartment with friends) but he and Theo are… sort of together now. After spending most of Yet a Stranger trying to convince themselves they weren’t in love with each other and trying to make relationships work with other people (in Auggie’s case, with an abusive arsehole), Theo finally told Auggie he loves him, and although things were left open-ended, there was – at last – an understanding that they were going to try to move forward together. Readers already know theirs isn’t going to be an easy road to happiness, though. Theo had been bingeing on booze and painkillers in the attempt to numb himself to the guilt he carries over not being able to protect/save the people he loves – his brother Luke, his late husband, his daughter – and Auggie, who ended up in hospital during their last investigation. He’s got a lot of work to do on himself – on his addiction and his PTSD – and by the beginning of The Fairest Show, he’s attending NA meetings, but he’s still ignoring the unaddressed trauma that lies deep within, focused instead on keeping Auggie from being dragged down by all his baggage and determined to keep him safe at all costs.

No sooner has Theo sat at his desk on his first day back than he receives a visit from the college’s assistant athletics director, Maria Maldonado who, having heard how Theo has previously had success in finding missing people, wants him to find the school’s missing football coach Harvey Gilmore. Behind her veneer of jolly bonhomie, Maldonado is forceful and intimidating, but Theo tells her ‘no’ anyway. Unfortuantely, however, she has anticipated this, and in a totally unethical move basically threatens to put obstacles in the way of Theo finishing his PhD unless he does what she wants. Accepting defeat, Theo agrees to do what he can. But his biggest problem now is this: how is he going to do that while keeping Auggie out of it and out of harm’s way?

Well, of course, he can’t because Auggie’s bullshit-o-meter is finely tuned and he instantly knows something is up when Theo starts avoiding him. Hurt and angry, Auggie calls Theo on his behaviour and Theo reluctantly fills him in, at the same time telling Auggie he’s going it alone because he can’t handle the idea of something bad happening to Auggie again. But Auggie isn’t going to be wrapped up and put in a box and insists on helping to find Gilmore – and of course, it’s not long before our intrepid duo find, once again, that they’ve become tangled up in something far more complex and dangerous than they’d bargained for. Someone isn’t happy they’re asking questions about Gilmore, which leads them into a violent confrontation with a local sheriff, and later, as the hunt for a missing man becomes a hunt for a murderer, and with Auggie a possible target, they uncover a truly vile web of depravity and corruption (Mr. Ashe is so good at creating horrible, believable villains) that threatens to destroy everything they’ve been building between them. If, of course, they survive at all.

If you’ve got this far in the series, then you’re likely not new to the author’s work, so it will come as no surprise when I say that he doesn’t pull his punches. Theo and Auggie never walk away from an investigation unscathed – physically or mentally – and there are some violent and unsettling scenes here as the twists and turns of the case take them down some very dark paths.

The investigation and the further development of the central relationship in Mr. Ashe’s books tend to be so inextricably bound together that neither element would work on its own, and that’s especially true in The Fairest Show, where the main conflict in the relationship is based around Theo’s obsessive need to protect Auggie – from danger, and even from himself – and Auggie’s very reasonable position that he’s an adult and capable of making his own decisions.  The investigation puts their fledgling relationship under even more strain than it was already under (a result of Theo’s attempt to protect himself from getting hurt again by not letting Auggie all the way into his life), but even when they’re fighting, there’s never any doubt about their love for each other; it’s just a case of whether they can be good for each other, be what the other needs.

On the other hand, when they’re being ‘them’, Theo and Auggie, goofing around, bouncing ideas off each other, bantering, joking, perfectly attuned and working together, it’s like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. This is where their absolute right-ness for each other absolutely hits home; we can see how well they understand each other even when they’re at odds, but these more carefree moments of affection and humour show them at their best and serve to remind us that yes, they really are perfect together.

This is probably the steamiest novel Gregory Ashe has produced yet. He’s brilliant at creating sexual tension and stretching it so tautly that you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for it to snap, and the sex scenes in his books are always there because they’re an important part of the story and/or relationship development. Here, they’re very much tied into Theo and Auggie’s growing understanding of how they are as a couple, combined with an awareness of self that having sex brings to them individually. Auggie doesn’t have a lot of experience, and most of what he does have is unfortunately tainted because of his relationship with an emotionally abusive tosser who tried to rape him (Yet a Stranger). He’s trying to come to terms with that, but he’s also got certain – unuhelpful – preconceived ideas that trip him up. Theo is very mindful of what Auggie has been through and takes great care of him (he’s totally Auggie’s “sex professor”!), taking cues from him, realising what Auggie needs before Auggie does a lot of the time and helping him to understand there’s no right or wrong way in their bedroom. He’s exactly what Auggie needs in that way, but he’s still in the mindset that’s telling him he has to hold back, that he can’t afford to get in too deep with Auggie because one day soon, Auggie will wake up and realise he shouldn’t be wasting his life on a broken fuck-up ten years his senior.

Oh, Theo. So clever, yet so dumb…

An intricate, skilfully executed mystery combined with some fantastic relationship development, moments of heartbreak (oh, so much heartbreak!) amazing insight, humour, tenderness and affection all add up to another compelling must-read from Gregory Ashe and a very welcome return for Theo and Auggie (or, as Ashe fans have labelled them, #Thuggie). While the book ends on a solid HFN, they clearly still have a way to go and a lot to sort out between them, and I’ll be back to see how it all works out in the final instalment in the series (A Fault Against the Dead) when it’s released later this year.

Note: This story includes use of date-rape drugs, references to incest and non-consensual sex, and a scene of sexual assault.

Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty 3 (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand)

off duty 3

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Life happens when you’re not looking. Unfortunately, so do a lot of other things.

Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty Volume 3 is a collection of short stories. It includes the following:

“If Your Friends Jumped Off a Bridge”

Hazard is going to get Evie the perfect toy for her birthday, no matter what. This story takes place before Relative Justice.

“Don’t Tell Your Dad”

Getting Colt settled isn’t exactly a smooth process, but you’ve got to break some eggs (or…something) to make an omelet. This story takes place before Custody Battles.

“Wait Till Your Father Gets Home”

Somers just wants to take a nap on his birthday. This story takes place before Domestic Animals.

“Responsible Adults”

Hazard and Somers chaperone a school dance. This story takes place before Father Complex.

“Under My Roof”

Hazard and Somers just want some alone time. Some adult alone time. This story takes place before Father Complex

“One Day You’ll Thank Me”

Hazard’s birthday scavenger hunt, redux. This story takes place before Final Orders.

“Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty 3”

Hazard and Somers take Colt to summer camp, and things go sideways. This story takes place after Final Orders.

Rating: A

The Off Duty books in Gregory Ashe’s Hazard and Somerset series comprise sets of short stories that are take place between the full-length books in the series and feature the guys during their downtime. It’s always a refresthing change to be able to spend time with Hazard and Somers when they’re not in life-or-death situatons, and I love that we get to see them in quieter moments of simple domesticity where their love for each other and the degree to which they get each other really shine through. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing, they’re always completely and utterly them, which goes to show just how much their creator understands them and cares about them. There’s always humour to be found in an H&S book, but in these shorts, the author lets his talent for comedy have full-rein whether it’s in the wonderful banter we’ve come to know and love, in the titles of the documentaries Hazard is fond of watching, or in the daft situations they often find themselves in.

In this collection… the guys find out just how difficult it can be to find some alone time with a teenager in the house… All John really wants for his birthday is a nap, but actually getting one proves impossible… and Emery Hazard chaperones the school dance like it’s 1899… I loved seeing Somers and Colt teaming up for Hazard’s birthday scavenger hunt, and in the new story in the collection – Off Duty 3 – Hazard and Somers take a very reluctant Colt to summer camp – only to end up stranded and battling a group of drug dealers, ably assisted by Theo and Auggie. (I’m SO excited for the continuation of their story in books 3&4 of the First Quarto serie. ) But, as usual, just when you think our guys are going to be able to take things easy for once… it looks like there’s a new face in town who’s going to complicate matters!

All these stories (bar the last one) were previously made available via the author’s newsletter but I always enjoy dipping in and out of the Off Duty stories once they’re collected together as well.

A must for all Hazard and Somerset fans.

Final Orders (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #5) by Gregory Ashe

final orders

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An embattled author. Fanatical parents. A son who can’t stay out of trouble. It’s the last one that’ll probably kill him.

When Emery Hazard gets drawn into a brawl at a monthly school board meeting, he knows he’s in trouble; his husband, John-Henry Somerset, is chief of police, and they’re already under enough scrutiny as they try to finalize their foster son’s permanency plan.

Hazard’s actions, however, have an unexpected consequence: a woman shows up at his office the next day, and she wants to hire him to protect her mother. Loretta Ames is a famous—and famously troublesome—author, and a string of recent attempts on her life suggests that someone is determined to get rid of her. Under pressure from his assistant, Hazard takes the job, assuming that it will be two days of babysitting before Loretta returns to New York.

Her murder changes everything. To find the killer, Hazard and Somers will enter a murky world of concerned parents, entitled teenagers, internet trolls, and a whole lot of grassroots crazy. But nothing is straightforward about the investigation, and even Loretta’s daughter seems to have her own reasons to want her mother dead. And when the killer abducts Colt’s friend, Hazard and Somers realize they are running out of time, and they must race to save him before it’s too late.

Rating: A

Note: Reference is made to a possible school shooting, and the story features the threat of gun violence on school premises.

If you’re a long-time Gregory Ashe reader, then you’ll already know that when you open one of his books, you’re in for a clever plot, compelling characters and a rollercoaster ride of emotions likely to result in bitten-to-the-quick nails and several almost-fell-off-the-seat moments – and this final book in the Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand series is perhaps more true of that than most. Its ripped-from-the-headlines plotlines made me – a non-American – want to scream and throw things on several occasions, so I can’t begin to imagine how my friends across the Pond deal with the issues the author tackles in this book.

Final Orders opens at a school meeting where a group of right-wing bigots (I’m calling it how I see it) are trying to ban a seminal LGBTQ+ young adult novel from the school library. They’re also aiming to prevent a visit to the school by its author, Loretta Ames, and are out for Theo Stratford’s blood, too, as he’s included the book on his teaching syllabus. Chief of Police John-Henry Somerset is present in an official capacity, and his husband Emery Hazard and many of their friends – Cora, Nico, Noah and Rebeca – are all there to lend quiet support to Theo and to oppose the ban. Things are starting to get heated when a schoolmate of Colt’s attacks Theo and the meeting descends into chaos.

Next day, Hazard is approached by Ayelet Ames, Loretta Ames’ daughter, who tells him someone is trying to kill her mother, explaining that she regularly receives death threats and has only recently had a couple of narrow escapes at home in New York. Hazard is sceptical and not keen to get involved – he doesn’t provide personal security – but Nico (sort of) talks him into it.

Without giving away too much, Loretta Ames is found dead in an abandoned complex outside of Wahredua and our dynamic duo of course find themselves up to their necks in the investigation and in all sorts of trouble. And while they’re working their way through a complex mess of clues and misdirection, and wading through a political and ideological minefield, they’re dealing with a lot at home, too. Colt’s social worker is expressing concern about his placement with them, and certain aspects of the investigation bring back difficult memories for Somers, reminding him quite viscerally of the lengths he went to as a teen to hide his true self, and the pain he caused Hazard and lived with himself.

As always in a Gregory Ashe book, there are lots of moving parts, but all are skilfully enmeshed so that they work together to form an exciting and insightful whole. He’s incredibly good at writing about deeply unpleasant people in a way that is both hard-hitting and realistic without turning them into cartoon-ish moustache-twirlers – which makes them all the more chilling. The subjects he tackles in this story – book-banning, the rabid (and unfounded) fears of some parents that their children are being groomed or indoctrinated, the quiet but pervasive radicalisation of the ‘soccer-mom’ – are presented in an accessible and very readable way that takes absolutely nothing away from just how terrifying they are.

For me, the relationships between the characters and their personal growth are just as important to these stories as the mysteries; while I’m always on tenterhooks waiting to find out whodunnit, the characters and their interactions are what keep me coming back to these books. The relationship between Hazard and Somers is SO well written and so authentic – of course the cases they get involved with are always dramatic, but their domestic life is relatable in so many ways, whether it’s Hazard’s insistence on not using fabric conditioner or Somers just wanting to have some peace and quiet at the end of a tough day. This series has explored what it means and what it takes to parent teenagers, and Mr. Ashe has never shied away from the difficulties and adjustments involved. There’s been a focus in this series on young people and how badly they can be screwed up (I couldn’t help thinking of Philip Larkin’s This Be the Verse) and failed by those who are supposed to be their number one go-to for care and support, which has been hard to read at times – especially as someone with children who are not long out of their teens. The frequent battles between Hazard and Colt have been a huge learning curve for Hazard especially, and I felt bad for Somers, being stuck in the middle as he so often was while trying to walk another tightrope at work. The couple has gone through some incredible highs and some awful lows throughout these books, but there’s never any doubt about the depth of the love and affection they share; even when the going is at its toughest, we know they’ll come through for each other, and the author never fails to make me smile at their banter, or give me the warm fuzzies in moments of understanding and tenderness.

Final Orders ties up the majority of the series’ storylines in a satisfying manner, as we see, by the end of the book, that Colt is coming to a greater understanding and appreciation of what Hazard (and Somers) are doing for him, and Hazard is learning that he needs not to jump to so many conclusions and when to take a step back. I doubt their relationship will ever be completely harmonious, but things are well on the way to settling down. I was pleased to see Nico working through some of his issues and how good a friend to Hazard he’s become; I like their working relationship very much – Nico knows Hazard well enough to take no crap, and he’s good at his job – and even though he might not admit it aloud, Hazard knows it. And all those moments of Theo and Auggie being cute and couple-y made my shippy little heart happy 🙂

But there are a few unresolved plot threads left hanging that I hope the author plans to address at a later date. Somers realises he’s got more than one rotten apple in the department, so that’s something he’s eventually going to have to deal with. We also haven’t got the full story as to what’s going on with Dulac; he’s been on a downward spiral for several books now, and something happens in this story that looks set to make it even worse – so hopefully, Final Orders isn’t also the Last Word on all things Hazard and Somerset.

On its own, Final Orders is everything I’ve come to expect from Gregory Ashe – a fascinating, tightly plotted mystery featuring two complex, flawed (and loveable) leads and a fully-developed secondary cast who are so much more than sidekicks or window dressing. It’s also a superb conclusion to what has been a gripping series, and while it’s not always been easy or comfortable to read, I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve spent with the gang in Wahredua.

Father Complex (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #4) by Gregory Ashe

father complex

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Having a father can be hard. Being a good one might be even harder.

The call-out for the double homicide, when it comes, is a strange one: two men gunned down in a motel room, no witnesses, no real clues. Even stranger, the men were enemies, and no one seems to know why they were in that motel room together. And stranger still, people won’t stop calling John-Henry Somerset, telling him he needs to find some answers—preferably nice, easy ones—fast.

Hazard and Somers set out to learn what happened, but they quickly find themselves mired in shifting factions: the ultraconservative political machine of the Ozark Volunteers; a liberal activist group protesting the local gun show; a reclusive fundamentalist church; even a hint of Mexican drug cartels. The further they press their investigation, the clearer it becomes that the killer—or killers—wants something, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it.

As Hazard and Somers struggle to find the truth, they face trouble at home as well. Their foster-son, Colt, has received a letter from his estranged father, the same man who attacked Colt and Somers in their home. Worse, Colt seems open to more communication, which leaves Hazard grappling with his fears for Colt and his helplessness against a world that seems to be conspiring to take his foster-son away.

But when a pair of gunmen come after Hazard at home, two things are crystal clear: he’s going to get to the bottom of these murders, and he’ll do anything to keep his family together.

Rating: A

Note:  This book is part of a long-running series which really needs to be read in order; there are spoilers for earlier books in this review.

With Father Complex, we’re heading into the home straight of this third Hazard and Somerset series, Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand.  The guys have been through a significant number of major life changes since we first met them; the original series saw them uneasily reconnecting after more than a decade, starting to work through the various issues between them and – eventually – falling in love.  In A Union of Swords, they’re adjusting to life as a couple with all its ups and downs,  learning how to be in a relationship and then getting married; and in Arrows in the Hand they return from their honeymoon to find themselves becoming ‘insta-parents’ to a troubled teen and working – not always successfully – to redefine and remake their family unit.  There are never any easy answers – these are complex, flawed, very human characters with individual baggage that often has a very real impact on their relationship and family dynamics, from Somers’ need to be liked and his desire to prove himself to his father (regardless of the fact that Glennworth Somerset is an arsehole), to Hazard’s PTSD and the anger issues that have been surfacing more and more frequently in his relationship with their foster son Colt, many of them arising as the result of his complicated relationship with his own – now deceased – father.

But through it all, there’s never been any doubt that these two love each other deeply; they get each other like nobody else ever has (or will) and best of all, they Put In The Work; it’s not easy and often it’s not pretty (they really do know how to push each other’s buttons) but every victory is all the sweeter for being hard won, and one of the many highlights of the series is the way Hazard and Somers are continuing to change and grow while remaining recognisably the same guys we met in Pretty Pretty Boys.

The mystery in Father Complex kicks off when Somers receives the news of a double homicide at a run-down motel, two men shot and killed, no witnesses and no real clues.  After the events of the previous book, Somers is taking on board the fact that his role as Chief of Police means trusting his team to do what they’re supposed to and that he can’t become personally involved in every investigation, so when Dulac asks him to come to the motel to take a look around, Somers initially refuses.  However, learning that one of the victims was engaged to Naomi Malsho – Somers’ former sister-in-law and one of the leaders of the ultra-right wing Ozark Volunteers (and a perennial thorn in his and Hazard’s sides) – and that the other was a liberal activist and son of a family deeply involved in local politics starts the alarm bells ringing.  Sure enough, it’s not long before his father is on the phone demanding he ‘handle’ it, and fast.

Somers brings Hazard in to help with the investigation, and they’ve really got their work cut out trying to figure out why two men with such strongly opposed views were even in the same room to begin with, and then following a winding trail down some dangerous paths and into confrontations with participants at the local gun show, the members of a fundamentalist church/cult and the Ozark Volunteers (Gregory Ashe is a master at writing seriously fucked-up and creepy characters who really make your skin crawl!),  as connections slowly begin to emerge and weave themselves together into an ever expanding web of lies and deceit – with Naomi somehow in the middle of it. It’s an incredibly complex but incredibly well-executed plot as the significance of each seemingly unconnected and confusing clue is revealed and the full picture slowly comes into view.  Watching Hazard and Somers work together so intuitively and seamlessly is always a delight, and I thoroughly appreciate the way they can do that even when they’re at odds off the job.

Tensions are running high at home, especially after Colt receives a letter from his deadbeat dad that pushes Hazard’s curiosity and protective instincts through the roof, and the pair are butting heads even more than usual. I’m sure anyone who has parented a teen will recognise many of the arguments and thought-processes at work here, and it’s tough to watch these two people who so badly want to love and be loved continually hurt each other.  Colt’s a teenager doing what teenagers do, but also, he’s a kid who has never been able to rely on anyone but himself, and who is, deep down, terrified that eventually Hazard will leave him, just as every other adult in his life has done – so he keeps on challenging him and pushing boundaries, which is his mixed-up way of checking that Hazard cares enough about him to keep loving him regardless.  And Hazard, well, sometimes he behaves every bit as badly as Colt does, rising to the bait every time even as he tells himself to be the adult, doing or saying exactly the wrong thing even though he knows it – and doing it anyway.  Unfortunately, this tendency is spilling over into his relationship with Somers, too – especially professionally, where he screws up the investigation or endangers them on several occasions because he can’t keep his mouth shut or his temper under control.  (I really hope he’s going to get some help with his anger issues soon!  If he carries on like this he’s heading for a meltdown of epic proportions.)

After the heartache of watching Somers floundering so badly in the previous book, I was delighted to see him finally starting to get to grips with his new role and moving towards finding a proper work/life balance in this one.  I don’t envy his role as referee in the ongoing Emery-Colt battles, but he’s on much more of an even keel here and is on hand to provide support and a badly needed voice of reason.

The cast of regulars is augmented by North and Shaw, who show up as the unlikeliest cavalry ever – and who inject some quite ridiculous (but needed) light-heartedness into the story.  All is clearly not well with Dulac and Darnell, despite their outward show of having patched things up, and I’m still worried about Nico, who seems to be swinging from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other.  With only one more book in the series to go, it might be a bit much to hope there’s room for those issues to be resolved alongside what (from the preview chapter I read) looks set to be an explosive finale… but if anyone can do it, Gregory Ashe can.

Father Complex is another gripping and unputdownable read from a writer at the top of his game, a tough, complex mystery with a rollercoaster ride of breathless emotion on the side.

Domestic Animals (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #3) by Gregory Ashe

domestic animals

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a man hires Emery Hazard to track down a teenager who, he claims, robbed him, Hazard isn’t convinced. The story has holes in it, and the client seems eager—too eager—to keep the authorities from getting involved. But Hazard is willing to play along; he suspects something much darker is going on, and he wants to know what it is.

Then his husband, John-Henry Somerset, connects the boy in question to an ongoing suspicious death investigation, and both men realize they’ve stumbled upon something much more complicated. There are too many loose threads: missing money, stolen jewelry, a husband back from the dead, and a string of violent assaults on men paying for sex. And there are too many people with their own agendas.

After Hazard’s client turns up dead, though, the pressure is on. The killer isn’t done yet, and the closer Hazard and Somers come to unearthing the connection between the victims, the greater the danger. They find themselves in a race to uncover the truth before another victim is claimed—and, if Somers is really lucky, in time for him to plan the perfect Valentine’s Day.

Rating: A

Gregory Ashe does love to put his characters – and his readers – through the emotional wringer in his books, and while Custody Battles, the previous instalment in the Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand series, really twisted the knife, this latest episode in the messy – and often dangerous – lives of our favourite crime-fighting husbands, is a close second when it comes to the “ouch” factor. In Domestic Animals, Hazard and Somers are struggling – both individually and as a couple. and professionally and personally.  Hazard’s PI business is doing quite well, but Somers is finding it hard to make the leap from being a friend and colleague, from being one of the guys to being the boss, and suddenly becoming parents to an at-risk teen has rocked the boat of their personal lives so that neither of them is really able to give as much attention to their relationship as they should – something I think ANY parent can identify with; kids are wonderful but they can be exhausting and demanding as hell, too.

The mystery plot kicks off when someone arrives at Hazard’s office wanting to employ him to find a teenager he says stole from him.  Hazard is immediately suspicious (when isn’t he?!); it’s pretty clear to him that he’s being fed a load of bull and his suspicions are confirmed by the man’s obvious reluctance to involve the authorities.  He’s sure there’s something  iffy going on and determines to get to the bottom of it, so he takes the case, prepared to bide his time and do a little more digging on the side.

Meanwhile, Somers becomes involved in the investigation into the suspicious death of a woman found at the bottom of the stairs in her house.  Dulac and his new partner Palomo caught the case, but something doesn’t feel right to Dulac, and he calls Somers for help. Even though Somers knows that, as Chief of Police, it’s not his job to take cases any more, he decides to swing by and see what the problem is.  It quickly becomes clear that Dulac had good reason for his suspicion; something doesn’t add up, but Somers isn’t sure what – and, missing the sort of hands-on investigating he used to do (part of the job he liked and was actually good at) – and as a method of avoidance, he decides to stick with the case.

As always, the mystery is satisfyingly complex with lots of twists and turns, red herrings and suspects, as the author skilfully pulls together the two seemingly disparate plot threads after Somers connects the teen Hazard’s client is looking for with the murdered woman – and they suddenly find Colt right in the middle of it all. I can almost never see exactly how he’s going to connect cases that start out seeming completely independent of each other or work out quite how things are going to go – reason #5648739 why I love Gregory Ashe books!

Hazard and Somerset go through a lot – they always do – but somehow Mr. Ashe always finds a different angle each time so that we never feel as though we’re re-treading a path we’ve been down before.  He sets out certain themes and threads that will run throughout the series and then proceeds to follow and develop them in each book, but it never gets repetitive.  In Domestic Animals, he takes a look at burnout and how it can so easily creep up on someone like Somers, a man who, on the surface, has everything – good-looks, charm, a good (though stressful) job, and a husband and family he loves.  But he’s in a bad place right now, the pressures of his job – of having his father demanding special treatment for his mates, of some of his officers being openly disrespectful (and homophobic), the consequences of still not taking that final step from friend to boss, trying to get Hazard to step back from police investigations – and the pressures at home of trying to keep World War Three from breaking out between Hazard and Colt …  it’s all weighing him down and has become more than he can handle pretty much without his realising it. The quiet, aching misery Somers tries to bury while trying to pretend everything’s fine and just going through the motions is utterly excruciating to watch – it’s frighteningly easy to relate to and so well written – and I was on the edge of my seat as he comes dangerously close to resorting to his old coping mechanisms.  And because Hazard’s in a constant lather over Colt – and almost always on the verge of meltdown – he fails to see just how much his husband is struggling.  Or rather, he sees some of it, but doesn’t realise the full extent of it, and doesn’t usually react in a helpful way.  Mr. Ashe’s insight into what makes these two guys tick is, as ever, unfailing, and watching Somers slowly unravelling and unable to ask for help packed quite the emotional punch and was really hard to read.

Hazard is dealing with a lot, too; his relationship with Colt is a veritable rollercoaster at times, and he’s struggling not to view what’s going on with his foster son through the lens of his own adolescence and father/son relationship (or lack thereof), and they’re constantly at each others’ throats.  The storyline about the breakdown of Colt’s friendship with his bestie, Ash, adds an interesting extra  layer and deepens Colt’s characterisation as he’s dealing with the heartache of what might be first love and a first break-up.

Nico and Dulac are both having personal problems, although Nico seems a bit more on top of his than Dulac, who is spiralling downwards after a big fight with his boyfriend.  I thought Somers should have benched him sooner than he did, though – but then, that scenario is a perfect example of why it’s not possible to be both friend and boss.

But amid all the fights and all the stress and angst, there’s still room for  Mr. Ashe’s trademark humour and quickfire banter;  Hazard’s instructions to Theo and Auggie about coming round to help fit some carpet and description of them as “probationary friends” made me giggle (and makes me eager for the rest of the First Quarto books) – for some truly tender moments between Hazard and Somers, where the depth and strength of their love for each other leaps off the page, and for moments of quiet understanding and sympathy between Hazard and Colt, Somers and Colt and the three of them together.  The pay-offs for all the angst and anger and rows can be a long time coming, but they’re so very worth the wait,

Domestic Animals is a tough but enthralling read in which Gregory Ashe proves yet again that he’s writing some of the most compelling, multi-layered characters and stories in the genre.  Hazard and Somerset are their own worst enemies at times, but after fourteen books (and several shorts), I’m as captivated by them as ever and don’t think I’ll ever get tired of reading about them.  Highly recommended.

The Same Place (The Lamb and the Lion #2) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by J.F. Harding

the same place

This title maybe downloaded from Audible via Amazon

For what seems like the first time in Teancum Leon’s life, things are looking good: he’s put an end to the toxic relationship with his former sex buddy, work is going well, and Jem Berger has officially decided they are best friends—in spite of Tean’s objections. Things are looking good for Jem too, although he’s not thrilled that somehow Tean has talked him into getting a real job. Everything changes, though, when Tean’s friend Hannah asks for help: she’s being followed, she tells them, and she thinks she’s might be in danger.

After Jem and Tean spend a weekend tailing Hannah, trying to catch her stalker, they make two unpleasant discoveries. First, Hannah is right that she is being followed. Second, she isn’t being stalked. She’s being watched by the police, who are interested in Hannah’s connection to a missing person investigation. And the detective in charge is none other than Ammon Young, Tean’s former friend and ex-sex buddy.

Tean and Jem’s search for the missing woman leads them to a body. The cause of death is a mystery, but one thing is clear: someone wanted the remains destroyed. Tean believes it was homicide, and so do the police.

When Hannah is arrested for the murder, Tean and Jem must race to prove her innocence. But everyone seems to be lying, including Hannah, and she’s willing to take her secrets with her to prison—or to the grave. The answer may lie with the animal teeth marks on the victim’s remains. Good thing Jem knows a wildlife vet.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A

Gregory Ashe’s Utah-set The Lamb and the Lion series continues with The Same Place, which takes place a few months after the events of The Same Breath. Wildlife vet Teancum Leon and con man Jem Berger have decided they’re better as friends than lovers (well, Tean’s decided, and Jem is mostly going along with it), and over the past few months have settled into a routine of sorts; Jem breaks into Tean’s apartment and makes himself at home whenever he feels like it and talks him into spending money he doesn’t have on clothes he doesn’t want, and Tean is teaching Jem to read and trying to help him settle into a ‘normal’ life, with a job, an apartment, and all the things Tean thinks Jem needs. Unfortunately however, Tean’s idea of normal isn’t really Jem’s – but, well, Jem loves Tean and likes to do things that make him happy. Although it would be easier to do that if Jem didn’t keep getting fired. On top of being fired from his latest job, Jem learns that his abusive former foster mother LouElla has committed identity theft, taken out a number of credit cards in his name and defaulted on the payments. He had hoped never to have anything more to do with the woman, but he isn’t about to stand by and let her ruin his life – again. However, confronting her doesn’t quite work out the way he’d hoped, and seeing her again stirs up memories and feelings he thought he’d buried for good.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Custody Battles (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #2) by Gregory Ashe

custody battles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Some parents would die for their children. Others will do a whole lot worse.

Emery Hazard and his husband, John-Henry Somerset, are settling into their new normal—at home, with the latest addition to their family, and at work, as Somers adapts to his new role and Hazard manages his expanding agency. The only thing Hazard is worried about is getting through dinner with his in-laws.

When his father-in-law requests that Hazard and Somers join him for a weekend deer hunting, it sounds simple enough: spend a night camping, give their foster son a chance to spend time with his friend, and—possibly—prevent a parental kidnapping. But nothing is ever as simple as it sounds. At deer camp, Hazard and Somers find themselves drawn into a toxic family feud between parents battling for custody.

After the husband is shot and killed deep in the forest, detectives from the Sheriff’s Department are convinced that the killer is a local extremist—a member of the neo-Nazi Ozark Volunteers. Hazard and Somers, though, aren’t so sure, and as they probe deeper into the killing, they find that many people had a reason to want the victim dead, and the killing itself might not be what it seems.

Then a drive-by shooting almost claims the lives of Hazard, Somers, and the victim’s wife. The killer’s work isn’t done, and Hazard and Somers must race to find the truth before the killer strikes again.

Rating: A

Note: This is the thirteenth full-length novel in the Hazard and Somerset series, so new readers are advised not to start here.  There are spoilers for the previous books in this review.

I think, if I had to write a one-word review of Gregory Ashe’s Custody Battles, it would be OUCH.  I spent most of the time reading it with my insides tied up in knots, and even when they were able to  unknot a little, I knew that wouldn’t be the end of it.

Things are already fraught when the book begins, as Hazard and Somers are getting ready to host dinner for friends and family – the family including Somers’ parents, neither of whom is shy about making known their disappointment in him.  Adding to Somers’ already heightened tension is the fact that Cole – the teen he and Hazard are now fostering (see Relative Justice) – absolutely hates him, for no reason that Somers can fathom.  Somers has been friendly and reasonable, but no matter what he says or does, Colt is completely hostile – and while Somers recognises that Colt has had a crappy time of it and that he’s a vulnerable kid, he can’t help feeling bewildered, hurt and, sometimes, resentful.  The quiet evenings watching TV and eating takeout with his husband he’d been looking forward to have gone out the window, and Somers can’t help but feel – at times – as though he’s being pushed aside.  He knows it’s ridiculous to feel that way – he’s a grown man and can be adult about the situation, but… those feelings are there nonetheless.

Things go from bad to worse later that evening, when Colt’s deadbeat dad Danny Ballantyne shows up and confronts Somers, threatening to petition to get get custody of Cole back unless Somers pays him to go away.  Somers knows – he knows – it’s dumb to think he’ll go and stay away – but on top of everything else – Colt’s hatred, his parents’ condescending disapproval, his feeling that things are slowly spinning out of control – Somers decides that here’s something he can do for Colt and for Hazard (he knows losing Colt would devastate him) and decides to handle it himself so as not to worry them.  He agrees to find the money to pay Ballantyne off, even though they really don’t have it – and not to tell Hazard what’s going on.

Okay, so at this point, I was mentally screaming – ‘Somers, you idiot, you know better than to keep this from Hazard!’ – but before that disaster is allowed to unfold, another looms in the form of Somers’ dad’s ‘invitation’ (insistence) that Hazard and Somers accompany him on an overnight hunting trip.  Neither is keen and both are suspicious; Somerset Sr. eventually tells them he’s heard rumours of a potential parental kidnapping and that he thinks Somers just being around will be enough to prevent it.  Reluctantly, Hazard and Somers agree to go, and when they arrive the next day, they find themselves in the middle of the most awful group of people imaginable, (quite honestly, I would have been quite happy had they ALL been bumped off!), which includes the couple they’d heard about, who are engaged in a very acrimonious divorce and fighting for custody of their completely obnoxious son.

When the husband is killed somewhere out in the forest, suspicion immediately falls on the Boone’s neighbour Dunkie Newcomb, a member of the right-wing extremist Ozark Volunteers, with whom the Boones have had frequent disputes about property boundaries, but Hazard and Somers aren’t convinced, and start to dig a little deeper.  The fact that the victim was a lying, violent, bullying piece of shit means there’s no shortage of people who would have liked to have seen the back of him, and the sudden appearance at Hazard’s office of Naomi Malsho – Somers’ former sister-in-law and someone with strong connections to the Volunteers – complicates matters still further.  She insists Newcomb has a cast-iron alibi, but that she can’t reveal it for fear of endangering others.  Hazard knows Naomi is clever and devious, and even though he’s extremely suspicious, he agrees to take the job she’s offering – to prove Newcomb innocent of the murder.

Oh, what a tangled web…

As I said at the beginning, this is one of those books that will tie you up in knots.  As well as another clever, gripping and suspenseful mystery (including some seriously edge-of-your-seat moments!) Custody Battles takes a long, hard look at parenthood in all its various forms, both good and (very, very) bad – a look which includes Somers’ own parents, whose approval he still craves even though he knows it shouldn’t matter.  Although Hazard and Somers always get equal billing in these novels, this one is most definitely a’ Somers book’, focusing on his struggle to adapt to his new roles as Chief of Police and as parent of a difficult teenager – and it’s not going at all well.  He’s aware of his deep-seated need to be liked, but hasn’t yet realised he can’t continue to be everyone’s friend at work, and Colt’s open hostility is wearing him down even further and causing massive amounts of tension between him and Hazard, especially when they clash over discipline issues.  Wanting to find a way to get Colt to like him, Somers always steps in and tries to smooth things over when he thinks Hazard is being too hard on the boy, without recognising he’s doing precisely what his parents did whenever he screwed up; making excuses for his behaviour and trivialising whatever it was he did, telling him it wasn’t his fault and generally making it seem as though he could do no wrong.  It takes him a while to realise this, of course – although he – and we – are very clearly shown what’s at the end of that particular path through the character of Junior, a deeply, deeply unpleasant and damaged young man thanks to exactly that sort of behaviour on the part of his parents.

Custody Battles is absolutely brilliant in its focus and level of insight, and it packs one hell of an emotional punch, but it’s a tough read with several moments of uncompromising, brutal honesty along the way.  That Hazard and Somers love each other deeply is never in question, but knowing each other so very well means they each know exactly how to twist the knife – and when they do, it’s not pretty.  Yet for all the difficult discussions and arguments, there’s still plenty of humour to be had, as well as some lovely tender moments between our heroes – and that ending.  Gah!

The secondary characters are all superbly crafted; we’ve met many of them before, and of all of them, it’s Nico who really shines. (The way he deals with Naomi is priceless).   I’ve never been in the ‘I hate Nico’ camp (I know some H&S fans dislike him), and I’m really enjoying watching him grow as a character and into someone Hazard has come to call a friend (not that he’d ever admit as much!)

Custody Battles isn’t always an easy read, but it’s utterly compelling and completely un-put-down-able nonetheless.  The characterisation and relationship development are superb, the mystery is well-crafted and Hazard and Somers are as captivating now as they ever were – possibly moreso.  They love and they fight and they screw up, but they’re never any less than human as they navigate their way through work, life, marriage, and parenthood, making it up as they go along – just as we all have to, most of the time.

Fans of Hazard and Somers won’t be disappointed in this latest Arrows in the Hand book (although they might gnash their teeth and shout a bit!), and Gregory Ashe proves that thirteen isn’t always an unlucky number and chalks up yet another DIK.

Stray Fears (DuPage Parrish Mysteries #1) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by Declan Winters

stray fears

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Elien Martel is a survivor, but surviving, he’s beginning to discover, isn’t the same thing as living. In the house he shares with his much older boyfriend, Elien spends his days trying to stay as far away from living as possible. Living, he has learned, means that sooner or later you’ll get hurt.

When a member of Elien’s support group dies under strange circumstances, though, Elien finds himself in a web of bizarre coincidences. The responding officer turns out to be another member of Elien’s support group—a man named Mason, who has made no effort to hide his dislike of Elien. Then, just a few days later, Mason tries to kill Elien in front of dozens of witnesses.

As violence ripples through Elien’s world, he begins to suspect that the coincidences are not coincidences at all. Something is at work behind the cascade of tragedies, something vicious and intelligent. Something that has wanted Elien for a long time.

To defeat it, Elien will have to do what he fears most and face the darkness in his own past. Worse, he’ll have to take the risk of trying to live again.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A-

Gregory Ashe’s paranormal/horror novel Stray Fears is a spooky tale featuring two engaging, flawed characters and a clever mystery plotline which draws on Louisiana folklore for inspiration. I read and enjoyed it when it was published last year, and was pleased to see it coming to audio with Declan Winters narrating; I’ve enjoyed his work in C.S. Poe’s Magic & Steam series and was looking forward to a similarly strong performance here.

The story centres around a support group for people with PTSD, and when it begins, a meeting is in progress. Elien Martel is one of the attendees, a young man of twenty-two whose life was ripped apart a year earlier when his elder brother shot their parents and then himself. Mired in grief and guilt, Elien is a mess; volatile, sarcastic and filled with self-loathing, he lives with his much older boyfriend Richard – a psychiatrist and therapist – whose equanimity and refusal to rise to Elien’s frequent baiting and have a damn good row irritate Elien no end.

Quite honestly, Elien seems like a total dick much of the time, but his sharp tongue belies a genuine kindness and wit, and he’s surprisingly good with the other members of the group, showing them the sort of patience and compassion he doesn’t extend to himself. When the group leader – who is a colleague of Richard’s – asks Elien if he’ll check up on fellow group member Ray, who hasn’t been doing so well lately, Elien agrees without question.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Cascade Hunger (DuPage Parish Mysteries #2) by Gregory Ashe

cascade hunger

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Eli and Dag survived a monster.

Two monsters, in fact.

A year later, though, they’re still trying to settle into a ‘regular’ life. Dag is working hard in school. It’s not going great. Eli is working hard at…being a better Eli. He’s eating right. Most of the time. He’s thinking about exercise in healthy ways. He’s ok with how he looks, as long as he doesn’t walk past any mirrors.

He goes out some nights, though. He goes across the lake, back to Bragg, where the monsters were. And he’s not sure why. He’s not sure what keeps calling him back.

When a woman is brutally murdered and an eyewitness claims to have seen the killer transform into a mysterious light, Eli and Dag are forced to set aside their own problems and face a difficult truth: there is another monster out there. Worse, there doesn’t seem to be anybody else who can stop it from killing again.

But not all monsters are the same, as Eli and Dag discover. And the most dangerous monster might be the one who can give you what you’ve always wanted.

Rating: A-

The second book in Gregory Ashe’s DuPage Parish series of paranormal-with-a-horror-vibe mysteries, Cascade Hunger catches up with Elien Martel (who has reverted to going by his real name of Eli Martins) and Dagobert LeBlanc around a year after the events of Stray Fears. In that book, Eli and Dag discovered the existence of a supernatural being called a Hashok, a malevolent spirit that fed on pain and suffering, and which had been consuming negative energy from Eli – who, in addition to carrying around a shedload of guilt over the deaths of his parents and brother, struggles with body dysmorphia and self-esteem issues – for a long time without his being aware of it.  Eli and Dag were able to defeat and destroy the Hashok – not without considerable risk to themselves – and now, a year later, we find them living together in the house they’ve bought, and getting on with their lives.

Well.  Sort of.

After working for a few years as a Sheriff’s Deputy, Dag is now at college studying marine biology, and although he loves the subject, he’s struggling.  And Eli… well, he’s still Eli.  Sharp-tongued, prickly, damaged, and his own worst enemy at times, he loves Dag but can’t seem to stop himself from doing things he knows will hurt him.  When the story begins, Eli seems to have fallen back to his old self-destructive ways, sneaking out of the house late at night and heading to Bragg where he wanders around and binge-eats and then calls Dag for a ride home. Eli knows it’s not good for him, he knows it upsets Dag (and how unfair it is of him to be calling so late when Dag has to get up early for college) but he just can’t seem to fight off the compulsion that draws him back there time and again.

Dag loves Eli very much, but he’s tired.  Lack of sleep is affecting his college work, but Eli’s simultaneous skittishness and neediness can be just as exhausting.  Even though they’ve lived together for a year, Eli isn’t willing to label what they are – their latest fight was over Dag’s use of the “b” word – and while Dag tries hard to be supportive and understanding (seriously, the man has the patience of a saint!) sometimes it’s hard.

Things between them are still a little bit awkward a couple of days after Eli’s latest night-time excursion when Dag is surprised by a phone call from his old sergeant at the Sheriff’s department, asking him for some information about a domestic – the first one he’d ever attended back when he was an eighteen-year-old rookie.  Dag being Dag, he still has all his old notebooks and quickly finds the details of the case – a woman named Ivy had locked herself in the bathroom after being beaten by her boyfriend; Dag had taken the boyfriend in, but Ivy wouldn’t press charges and he had to be released. Now Ivy is dead – likely murdered – and the boyfriend is the prime suspect.  But then Dag and Eli hear the sergeant make a comment to one of the other deputies about the “damn fireflies” and they’re both paralysed with shock.  It’s been a year, but they still have nightmares about blue fireflies.  Has the hashok returned? Or is there another one out there?

Well, I’m not telling – but Eli and Dag immediately set about finding out.  Their investigations turn up more dead bodies, stories of lights that look like fireflies (but aren’t) across the bayou and tales of supernatural tricksters and spirits that can grant your heart’s desire – and throwing the proverbial spanner into the works is Lanny, Dag’s ex, who turns up out of the blue, supposedly to pay back the money he stole when he left, but clearly intent on getting Dag back.

The combination of folklore-inspired paranormal elements and Gregory Ashe’s customary brand of cleverly plotted mystery is a winning one, and as in Stray Fears, the author very skilfully juxtaposes the evils of his fictional supernatural entities with the real-life evil human beings perpetrate against each other every day.  The encroaching sense of dread builds slowly right from the first page as Eli and Dag are pulled inexorably deeper into a hidden world full of evil spirits and monsters – and the climactic set pieces are tense and exciting.

But the thing I most adore about Mr. Ashe’s books is the fact that while his mysteries are clever, the people involved in them aren’t merely ciphers or character-types, they’re real people with real problems who are bumbling their way through life – as are most of us! – trying to do the right thing, trying to work out who they are and who they want to be and navigating relationships (not always successfully).  They’re flawed, complex and they make mistakes – and yet they’re endearing and you can’t help but care about them even as sometimes you want to yell at them to pull their heads out of their arses!  Dag and Eli are made from the same mould; being in a relationship doesn’t magically solve their problems and they obviously have some way to go, but their love for each other is never in doubt.  I was pleased that the author has chosen to delve a little deeper in to Dag’s past in this book; he’s Mr. Even Keel a lot of the time, but he has his insecurities, too, and some of those come to the fore here as he struggles to process a past betrayal while also trying to be what Eli needs as he grapples with his own demons.

The only slightly false note struck in the book is Dag’s parents, who once again provide comic relief – but I found their enthusiasm (and nosiness) about Dag’s sex life a bit overdone and intrusive this time around.  It’s wonderful that they’re so supportive, but I really felt Dag’s embarrassment, poor guy!

That’s my only quibble in what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable combination of chills, thrills, humour, twisty plotting, and perfectly imperfect romance.  Mr. Ashe said in his most recent newsletter that Cascade Hunger “launches the guys into official monster hunter territory”, and that this isn’t the last we’re going to see of them – which is definitely cause for celebration.  I can’t wait to read more of their monster-hunting adventures!