Beneath Devil’s Bridge by Loreth Anne White

beneath devil's bridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

True crime podcaster Trinity Scott is chasing breakout success, and her brand-new serial may get her there. Her subject is Clayton Jay Pelley. More than two decades ago, the respected family man and guidance counselor confessed to the brutal murder of teenage student Leena Rai. But why he killed her has always been a mystery.

In a series of exclusive interviews from prison, Clayton discloses to Trinity the truth about what happened that night beneath Devil’s Bridge. It’s not what anyone in the Pacific Northwest town of Twin Falls expects. Clayton says he didn’t do it. Was he lying then? Or now?

As her listeners increase and ratings skyrocket, Trinity is missing a key player in the story: Rachel Walczak, the retired detective who exposed Pelley’s twisted urges and put him behind bars. She’s not interested in playing Clayton’s game—until Trinity digs deeper and the podcast’s reverb widens. Then Rachel begins to question everything she thinks she knows about the past.

With each of Clayton’s teasing reveals, one thing is clear: he’s not the only one in Twin Falls with a secret.

Rating: A

Beneath Devil’s Bridge is a tense, tightly-plotted and superbly-executed mystery that is very loosely based on a real-life murder that happened in British Columbia some twenty-four years ago.   It’s a compelling, absorbing read that takes a look at the impact of a brutal crime on a small, close-knit community and asks some challenging questions about the lengths to which people will go to protect those they love or about what we are capable of doing to our fellow human beings.  It comprises some difficult subjects, so potential readers should be aware that the murder itself is quite gruesome (although we don’t witness it directly) and the story contains references to bullying, grooming, paedophilia, underage sex and rape.

If it takes a village to raise a child, does it also take a village to kill one?

Fourteen-year-old Leena Rai is an outsider.  Socially awkward and plain, all she really wants is what any teenage girl wants – to belong, to have friends, to be happy.  Sadly, she has none of those things.  She’s bullied relentlessly at school and on a cold November night she is brutally murdered when she’s on her way home from a “secret” bonfire festival in the mountains north of the small town of Twin Falls in the Pacific Northwest.

When her battered body is pulled out of the river a few days later, Detective Rachel Walczak is assigned to the case, along with Sergeant Luke O’Leary, a homicide detective from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – who will bring an outside perspective (and the considerable resources of the RCMP) to the investigation.  But as Rachel and Luke start interviewing Leena’s schoolmates, and others who were at the bonfire, they immediately get the sense that something is being carefully hidden from them; the stories they’re hearing are too pat, as though they’ve been co-ordinated… but by whom? And why?  This all becomes moot however, when someone – a teacher and guidance counsellor at Twin Falls Secondary school – confesses to the crime.  The case is closed,  there’s no trial and Clayton Jay Pelley goes to prison.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Wedding Night Affair (Ash & Juliana #1) by L.C. Sharp

the wedding night affair

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The year is 1748, and Lady Juliana Uppingham awakens in a pool of blood, with no memory of how her new husband ended up dead beside her. Her distaste for her betrothed was no secret, but even so, Juliana couldn’t possibly have killed him…could she?

Juliana’s only hope is Sir Edmund Ashendon, a dashing baronet with a knack for solving seemingly unsolvable crimes—and a reputation for trouble. A man as comfortable in the rookeries of St. Giles as he is in the royal court, Ash believes Juliana is innocent, though all signs point to her as the killer. He doesn’t expect to develop a soft spot for the spirited widow, one that only grows when escalating threats against Juliana force Ash to shelter her in his home.

When another body is found, it becomes clear that Juliana has been dragged into something much, much bigger than simply her husband’s murder. With a collection of deadly black-tipped feathers as their sole clue and a date at the end of a hangman’s noose looming, they’ll have to find the real killer—before it’s too late.

Rating: B

The Wedding Night Affair is the first book in a new series of historical mysteries set in Georgian England entitled Ash & Juliana for its two protagonists – Sir Edmund Ashendon, a well-to-do young lawyer and Lady Juliana, daughter and sole heir to the Earl of Hawksworth.  This opening instalment has a similar premise to the first books in at least three other historical mystery series I can think of – Lady Julia (Deanna Raybourn), John Pickett (Sheri Cobb South) and Lady Darby (Anna Lee Huber) – in that the heroine is accused of murdering her (thoroughly unpleasant) husband, but that’s really the only similarity, and The Wedding Night Affair very quickly establishes its own distinctive world and authorial voice.

The story opens in a memorably shocking way as new bride Lady Juliana awakens the morning after her wedding to Lord Godfrey Uppingham.  Every part of her body aches and she’s covered in bruises; her wedding night was one of pain and terror as her husband used her roughly and repeatedly in a way she had not been at all prepared for.  (The assaults are not detailed on the page but are referred to in sufficient detail as to leave no doubt about what took place the night before.)  When Juliana moves the covers so she can get out of bed, she at first thinks the smear of blood on her thighs is only to be expected – until she realises it’s more than a smear. She’s lying in a pool of blood, her husband lying flat on his back next to her with his own knife sticking out of his chest.  The same knife he’d used to slice through her clothes the night before.

Juliana’s screams naturally bring servants running, followed by her in-laws, who immediately berate her for alerting the servants by making so much noise and then accuse her of murdering their son.  Still in shock, the only thing Juliana can do is cling to the knowledge that she didn’t kill her husband while his parents send her back to her family home in disgrace.

Henry Fielding (yes THE Henry Fielding) is the magistrate in charge of Bow Street at this time, and having learned of the murder, asks lawyer Sir Edmund Ashendon to go to question the lady and bring her back to Bow Street where she can be safely housed until a date is set for her trial.  Already intrigued by the case, Ash agrees and makes his way to the Hawksworth town house, where he is able to speak with Lady Juliana and get her side of the story.  As he listens to her and realises how terribly she has been treated by everyone around her, he can’t help feeling sympathy – and listening to her account of her wedding night, suggests she may have been acting in self-defence.  But Juliana insists she didn’t commit the murder – and Ash is starting to believe her.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Royal Secret (Marwood and Lovett #5) by Andrew Taylor

The Royal Secret

Two young girls plot a murder by witchcraft. Soon afterwards a government clerk dies painfully in mysterious circumstances. His colleague James Marwood is asked to investigate – but the task brings unexpected dangers.

Meanwhile, architect Cat Hakesby is working for a merchant who lives on Slaughter Street, where the air smells of blood and a captive Barbary lion prowls the stables. Then a prestigious new commission arrives. Cat must design a Poultry House for the woman that the King loves most in all the world.

Unbeknownst to all, at the heart of this lies a royal secret so explosive that it could not only rip apart England but change the entire face of Europe…

Rating: B+

The events of The Royal Secret – book five in Andrew Taylor’s series of mysteries set in seventeenth century London during the reign of Charles II – take place around four years after the Great Fire and our first meeting with James Marwood and Catherine – Cat – Lovett.  Theirs is an unusual relationship; they’ve saved each other’s lives and reputations more than once, and both have good reason to be distrustful of others, yet they’ve formed a somewhat uneasy but genuine bond of something stronger than friendship, but which doesn’t always contain any of the warmer feelings friendship might provide.  There’s a strong undercurrent of attraction there, too, something neither of them is particularly willing to acknowledge, especially Cat, whose traumatic personal history and unhappy marriage to a much older man, mean she is more determined than ever to never again give up her independence.

Cat has taken over the running of the business left by her late husband – a draftsman and architect – while Marwood continues to do well in his post as secretary to (and sometimes spy/investigator for) Joseph Williamson, Under Secretary of State to Lord Arlington.  They’ve started to see each other every couple of weeks – to take walks, to dine, to visit the theatre – and it’s during one of the latter excursions (after Cat gets annoyed when she sees Marwood looking appreciatively at a comely orange-seller) that they chance to meet Mr. Fanshawe, a  merchant and a client of Cat’s, and his companion, Henryk Van Riebeek  (to whom Marwood takes an instant dislike because he starts flirting with Cat.) 

Marwood encounters Fanshawe again few days later, when he is instructed to retrieve some confidential files that were removed from Lord Arlington’s office by one of his clerks, Richard Abbott.  Abbott has died suddenly and had not returned the files beforehand, and when a visit to Abbot’s lodgings proves fruitless – all Marwood and his servant find there are dead rats – he learns that Abbott’s wife – who was formerly married to Fanshawe’s son – and stepdaughter have gone to live with Fanshawe at his home in Slaughter Street.  Marwood pays Fanshawe a visit in order to retrieve the files, and when looking them over later that day, uncovers some discrepancies which only intensity his suspicions as to the nature of Abbott’s death.  He discovers that Abbott had run up huge gambling debts at the Blue Bush – and while there to see what he can find out, Marwood catches sight of a familiar face – Van Riebeek – although he’s going by a different name.  This fact, in addition to the dutchman’s familial connection to Abbott (Abbott’s wife is Van Riebeek’s sister) convinces Marwood that he is involved in some way – and also that there is more going on than meets the eye; that what he found in the files, Abbott’s murder and Van Riebeek’s hiding under an assumed name are all related somehow, and that whatever links them is far more serious than he’d at first thought.

Meanwhile, Cat has been commissioned by Lord Arlington to design a poultry house for the king’s sister Minette (who is married to the Duc d’Orléans, brother of Louis XIV), and is asked to travel to France with the plans and to have a scale model built to take with her as well.  Once arrived in France however, she can’t help wondering if there is some other reason for her presence there – and whether the interest Van Riebeek had shown in her before her departure, had been genuine.

As is the case with the other books in the series, the mystery in this one incorporates actual historical events and takes place (mostly) in a London still being rebuilt after the Great Fire. Mr. Taylor skilfully weaves together fact and fiction wherin uncertain political alliances, treachery and intrigue all come into play as Cat inadvertently becomes caught up in the very mystery Marwood is investigating. Although I wasn’t sure what that mystery was going to be to start with – with mentions of poison, witchcraft, a caged lion and disgruntled servants, there’s a lot going on! – I was nonetheless caught up in the world of Restoration London the author evokes so well.

Cat and Marwood are complex, flawed, three-dimensional individuals and their relationship – which veers from dislike to affection and back again – is frustrating and well written.  I appreciate Cat’s determination to make her way in an unusual (for a woman) profession in a man’s world, and how much Marwood has grown – is continuing to grow – as a character.  He’s perhaps more cynical than he was, and he’s learned how to play the game with those who are more powerful than he is, but at heart, he’s a good, decent man while very much a man of his time. 

Excellent research, clever plotting and fascinating historical detail combine to make The Royal Secret another excellent instalment in the Marwood and Lovett series.  I really hope there’s more to come

A Friend in the Fire (Auden & O’Callaghan #2) by Gregory Ashe and C.S. Poe

a friend in the fire

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After solving the mystery behind the death of his former friend in July, ex-Army Sam Auden has been aimlessly wandering the country. Everything had gone sideways in New York City, so when his phone rings three months later, the caller is the last person Sam expected to be asking for help.

Confidential informant Rufus O’Callaghan has been struggling. His NYPD contact was murdered over the summer, and the man Rufus is head over heels for was driven away by his own undiagnosed trauma. But when he receives an anonymous letter that promises information on his mother, life goes from dark to dangerous in the blink of an eye.

Sam and Rufus must dig into Rufus’s rough and turbulent past in order to solve a series of contemporary murders connected to his mother. And if the two can’t expose who the killer is in time, they will most certainly become his next targets.

Rating: B+

There are spoilers for book one, A Friend in the Dark, in this review.

A Friend in the Fire is the second book in Gregory Ashe and C.S. Poe’s series of suspense/mystery novels set in NYC featuring Rufus O’Callaghan (a confidential informant) and Sam Auden (formerly of the US Army but otherwise of nowhere in particular), who, in book one, A Friend in the Dark, teamed up to solve the murder of the NYPD detective Rufus had worked for.  In doing so, they uncovered a child sex-trafficking ring with a number of dirty cops linked to it – but while the case was solved by the end of the book, the situation between Sam and Rufus didn’t end as successfully.  After a heated argument following Rufus’ confession to thoughts of suicide, Rufus told Sam to GTFO – and Sam did.

When A Friend in the Fire opens three months later, Rufus isn’t doing so well.  He’s depressed, lonely and too tired to give a fuck; he ordered the only person who gave a damn about him out of his life and hasn’t heard from him since.  Which isn’t surprising, given that Rufus never gave Sam his number.

Rufus is on the way out of his crappy apartment building when he sees a piece of paper sticking out from his mailbox.  It’s a note in handwriting he doesn’t recognise offering “information on Daisy” – his murdered mother – if Rufus turns up at a specified location on Saturday night.  Of course, Rufus can’t stay away; Daisy’s killer was never found, and even though she was far from a good mother, she still deserves justice.  But when Rufus turns up, someone goes for him with a knife and he realises it was a trap; he manages to get away with only a ripped jacket, but it’s a close thing.

After that… well, there’s only one person he wants and trusts to help him.

Rufus is the last person Sam expects to hear from, especially considering how things ended between them.  But when Rufus asks for help, Sam isn’t going to turn him down, and makes his way back to New York (from some shit hole in Missouri whose name he couldn’t even spell – hah!)  as quickly as he can, to find Rufus is a mess… well, more of a mess than before, anyway.

Their reunion is kind of awkward to start with, but it’s not long before the pair have regained the equilibrium they established in the previous book, their snark and teasing underscored by a strong undercurrent of affection and an even stronger one of longing.  Rufus tells Sam about the attack and finally opens up about his past;  his mother was a prostitute who was killed when he was sixteen,  and while she didn’t want or care about him, she was all he had. What happened over the summer made him realise he wasn’t really over her death and needed answers, so he started poking around the NYPD to see if anyone would help him find out the truth – but heard nothing until getting the note which set him up.  It’s too much of a coincidence, surely, that someone tried to kill him just weeks after he’s started asking questions – so… who wants him dead?  And why?

As Sam and Rufus start digging, they learn that Daisy’s death wasn’t an isolated incident, and that it was the last of a string of murders of sex-workers that happened in the late 90s and early 2000s. But when some of the other working girls in the area are murdered, and some of Daisy’s former ‘colleagues’ are killed, it seems that whoever was responsible for the earlier slayings is back.  They’re desperate to cover their tracks completely… and Rufus is in their sights.

As I’d expect from two accomplished mystery writers, the plot is tight and well put-together, but what draws me to these stories are the characters and their evolving relationship, which are just as important a part of the novel as the mystery.  I really like both Sam and Rufus, although at this stage Sam, despite his tendency to be brutally honest, is still a little bit of an enigma.  Rufus is kind of adorkable, but he’s also damaged and struggles with anxiety and depression.  He’s lived a tough and very solitary life; he made money as a petty thief until he turned CI for Detective Jake Brower, who was the first person who ever showed him any sort of kindness or friendship, and the only person who ever believed in him, which is why Rufus took his death so hard.  He’s sweet, funny and whip smart but doesn’t think he is, and his longing to be something to someone is incredibly poignant.

Sam is his total opposite in many ways. He’s big, gruff and intimidating with very little by way of a verbal filter, but he’s insightful and can be really tender and affectionate when it comes to Rufus.   We don’t know much about Sam’s past yet; he’s ex-army and didn’t leave on good terms, he lives with PTSD and there’s something dark in his past he’s not willing to talk about – which causes friction between him and Rufus.  They have terrific chemistry and I love the way they work together – there’s a great kind of reciprocal energy that bounces between them and a real sense of connection and trust, too.

Those things carry over into their personal relationship.  I like how honest they are with each other about how they feel; they own up to having missed each other badly after Rufus threw Sam out and to how much it means to them both that Sam came back.  They’re complete misfits, but somehow – and both authors are a dab hand at creating misfits-who-fit pairings – they work; two broken men who, in falling for one another are helping each other to want to be better and to heal.

A Friend in the Fire is another entertaining outing for Auden and O’Callaghan, and one I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys a fast-moving, clever mystery with a well-realised setting and a couple of complex, likeable protagonists.  I’ll definitely be back for the next instalment in the series.

Somebody to Love (Tyler Jamison #1) by April Wilson (audiobook) – Narrated by J.F. Harding and Jack DuPont

somebody to love

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Chicago homicide detective Tyler Jamison has accepted the fact that he was born defective. Women just don’t do it for him, and he can’t contemplate any other option. So, loneliness it is.

Ian Alexander has met the man of his dreams, but the guy’s in complete denial of his sexuality. Ian’s not giving up on Tyler, though. Tyler’s a domineering, controlling force of nature…just what Ian has always craved in his bed.

When a serial killer sets his sights on Ian, Tyler will do anything to protect the much younger man. For the first time in his life, Tyler has experienced desire, and it’s for another man. How much will it take for him to become the man he was meant to be?

Rating: Narration: A-; Content: C

April Wilson’s Somebody to Love is very much a book of two halves. It starts out as a (sort of) mystery/suspense story a with Detective Tyler Jamison investigating the murder of three gay men, all killed in the same manner and therefore believed to have been killed by the same person. During the course of the investigation, Tyler meets Ian Alexander; Tyler is deeply, deeply closeted but is strongly attracted to Ian in a way he’s never been to anyone.

The first half of the story (more or less) is taken up with the hunt for the killer – although to be honest, it’s not much of a hunt – during which Ian does some very TSTL things (like asking around at the gay club the victims were known to frequent and skipping out on the police protection he’s been given in order to do so), which of course, bring out Tyler’s growly, protective side. The perpetrator is arrested by the half-way point, but this is no intricate, twisty mystery – it’s all very simplistic and obviously just a plot device to get Tyler and Ian together.

Once the serial killer plot is dispensed with, the second half of the book focuses on the romance. It’s okay but nothing special, although I did like the way Tyler’s coming out was handled; he’s forty-four (to ian’s twenty-eight) and has spent his life trying to bury the part of him that liked men, even dating (and sleeping with) women. He never found the sort of connection he was looking for, but refused to admit why, and had eventually resigned himself to being alone. I can imagine that for someone so strongly entrenched in their ways, coming to the realisation – or at last admitting the truth – would be incredibly difficult and the way things finally come to a head for Tyler is well done. Ian has some issues relating to his childhood, but they seem somewhat superficial, as if they’ve been added simply in an attempt to make him interesting. The romance as a whole is pretty run of the mill stuff.

The best thing about this audiobook is the narration. I’m not familiar with Jack DuPont, but he delivers a strong performance all round – pacing, characterisation and differentiation were all good, as were his female voices. I’m a big fan of J.F. Harding (his name on this was why I picked it up in the first place) – and of course he was excellent in every respect. Interestingly though, both men have very similar types of voices – deep and slightly husky – and actually sound alike, so I wondered why two narrators were used. Jack DuPont reads the chapters from Tyler’s PoV and J.F. Harding those from Ian’s; both men portray the other character very well (JFH’s portrayal of Tyler was perfect) and quite honestly, either of them could have carried the book on his own.

The author sets up the drama for the next book towards the end of this one – I’m not sure I’ll be picking it up as once again, the plot seems fairly contrived and based on someone doing something really stupid it’s hard to believe they would have done.

Somebody to Love isn’t the worst audiobook I’ve ever listened to, but it’s far from the best. The excellent narration kept me listening even though the worst of the eye-rolling parts, but the story is disjointed and clichéd, and the characters are bland and barely two-dimensional. It passed the time and the terrific performances meant it passed mostly pleasantly, but I don’t think I’ll be listening to this one again.

Spooky Business (The Spectral Files #3) by S.E. Harmon (audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

spooky business

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Being insatiably curious is a good way to end up dead.

Rain Christiansen, cold-case detective and reluctant medium, is very aware of that fact. But when infamous serial killer Thomas Kane wants to meet, there’s no way Rain can say no. He also can’t refuse Kane’s offer – find his missing wife, Delilah, and he’ll reveal the location of his victim’s bodies.

Rain has never turned down a good quid pro quo, and he doesn’t intend to start.

The hunt for Kane’s wife leads to yet another cold case, three copycat murders, and an investigation where nothing is as it seems. Soon, Rain is dealing with a ghost unlike any he’s ever dealt with before…a ghost capable of doing things he shouldn’t be able to do. How can Rain control something he doesn’t even understand? And what will he do when the unknown threatens the safety of the most important person in his life?

Rain is starting to realize that he can only battle the supernatural with the supernatural, and that is spooky business indeed.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

This third book in S.E. Harmon’s Spectral Files finds psychic and former FBI agent-turned-cold-case-detective Rain Christiansen confronting a serial killer in order to try to find out where the bodies are buried. Literally. The spookiness factor seems to increase with each book, and Spooky Business is a bit darker in tone than the previous entry in the series – and that’s fine – but I have to say there was one thing near the end that really stretched my credulity, and it seemed to me that Danny (Rain’s boyfriend) spent most of the time on the periphery of the story.

When Rain is asked by his former boss at the FBI to meet with convicted serial killer Thomas Kane, Rain, who is terminally afflicted by insatiable curiosity, agrees to make the four-hour drive to the correctional facility at which he’s being held. It’s immediately clear that Kane has no intention of telling him where he disposed of the remains of his victims; instead he tells Rain that he didn’t kill his wife Delilah Rose and asks him to find out what happened to her after she left him back in the 80s. He also insists he wasn’t responsible for all the murders attributed to him and that four of the twelve were carried out by a copycat – and tells Rain he’s being haunted and wants him to stop it. If Rain does both those things, then he’ll fess up about the bodies.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

What the Devil Knows (Sebastian St. Cyr #16) by C.S. Harris

what the devil knows

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s October 1814. The war with France is finally over, Europe’s diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together, and London finds itself in the grip of a series of terrifying murders eerily similar to the shocking Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.

In 1811, two entire families were brutally murdered in their homes. A suspect – a young Irish seaman named John Murphy – was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Murphy hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way, suddenly everyone is talking about the heinous crimes again, and the city is paralysed with terror. Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Has a vicious serial killer decided it’s time to kill again?

Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym’s colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Murphy was not the real killer. Which begs the question – who was?

Rating: B+

This sixteenth book in C.S Harris’ series of historical mysteries featuring aristocratic sleuth Sebastian St. Cyr is an entertaining page-turner which sees Sebastian investigating a number of particularly gruesome murders in and around London’s East End. As always with these books, the historical background is fascinating and incredibly well researched (it’s always worth reading the Author’s Note at the end; not only will you learn new things, you’ll learn just how skilfully Ms. Harris incorporates actual historical events into her stories), and the mystery is well-paced, with plenty of twists, turns and red herrings.

At the beginning of What the Devil Knows, Sebastian is called in by his friend, Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy, to help investigate the murder of Shadwell magistrate, Sir Edwin Pym, whose body was found in a dank alleyway in Wapping with his head smashed in and his throat slit from ear to ear. Sebastian and Lovejoy are immediately reminded of the brutal slayings, three years earlier, of two families known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. A linen draper and a publican were the seemingly unconnected victims and although a man was arrested for the crime, he was found hanged in his prison cell the day before his trial and the investigation was closed. There were whispers at the time that the magistrates – of whom Pym was one – were too eager to blame a conveniently dead man, but the murders ceased and eventually, the gossip died down. But Pym and another man – a seaman named Hugo Reeves – who was murdered some ten days earlier, were killed in exactly the same way as the Ratcliffe Highway victims – and Sebastian and Lovejoy can’t help but wonder if they are the work of the copyist or an accomplice… or if they’re the work of the person responsible for the earlier murders, who managed to escape justice three years earlier.

After making a few inquiries and observations of his own, it doesn’t take long for Sebastian to become fairly sure that John Williams, the supposed culprit who hanged himself, was not only not guilty of the original murders, but that he was framed for them, and when another magistrate – Nathan Cockerwell from Middlesex – is found dead just days later, his head bashed in and his throat slit, Sebastian is more sure than ever that the two sets of murders are somehow connected. Discovering that both Pym and Cockerwell were part of an alliance between corrupt government officials and some of the city’s richest, most powerful brewers, who forced public houses to purchase their beer and spirits from them and would put them out of business if they refused, Sebastian slowly starts to piece together a bigger picture and to draw together the links between the three-year-old murders and the more recent deaths of Reeves, Pym and Cockerwell.

The story that follows is fast-moving and satisfyingly complex, as Sebastian moves from suspect to suspect, many of whom have much to hide and are rarely forthcoming.  As always, the author skilfully incorporates some of the lesser-known histories of London into her plot, and the way Sebastian pieces together all the snippets of information – and weeds out the lies he’s fed along the way – is superbly done, with lots of character interaction, investigative pondering and insightful observation about the huge disparity that existed between the haves and have-nots, and the injustices perpetrated on the lower echelons of society by greedy public officials and institutions that were supposed to exist for the betterment of all, not just a self-serving few.

Sebastian continues to be a compelling, sympathetic character, and one of the things I so enjoy about this series is watching him grow and change from the hot-headed younger man who was careless of his own safety to a devoted husband and father, a truly and deeply compassionate man who believes strongly in justice and in using his position and abilities to speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves.  His wife, Hero – daughter of the devious, formidable Lord Jarvis  – shares his interests and convictions; she is an investigative journalist who writes about what life is really like for London’s poor and less fortunate, and I love how in-tune they are and the way they are each other’s staunch support.  She has a relatively small part to play in this story, but her discoveries pack a considerable emotional punch as she interacts with young women making a living on the streets, telling stories about their lives and experiences that are far from pretty.

As with the last few books in the series, the standalone mystery takes precedence,  so a reader new to it could jump in here and not feel as though they’re missing anything.  This has been the case with the last couple of books; the long-running storylines concerning Sebastian’s search for the truth about his heritage – and particularly his search for his mother – his relationship with his father, and the machinations of the Machiavellian Lord Jarvis are present, but are simmering along on the back-burner.  Sebastian learns that his mother has been living in Paris, but that she’s recently removed to Vienna – where European heads of state are gathering to put “the world back together after the defeat of that Corsican upstart” – under an assumed name, but has no idea why; Jarvis’ relationship with the cunning and mercenary Victoria Hart-Davis (were ever two villainous characters so well suited to each other?) progresses, and changes are afoot in Sebastian’s household.  As the timeline of the series inches closer to Napoléon’s escape from Elba and to Waterloo, I become more and more intrigued as to what lies in store for Sebastian – and I certainly plan on sticking around to find out.

What the Devil Knows is another strong instalment in the Sebastian St. Cyr series.  The mystery is gripping and tightly-written and the author’s descriptive prose is – as always – so wonderfully evocative that the reader can feel the dampness of the creeping fog , see the crowded tap-rooms and hear the gulls screeching overhead around the docks.  Why is it not a DIK?  Simply because I’m starting to feel the need for a bit more movement on issues surrounding Sebastian’s history; this seems to have been pushed aside in the last few books in the series – and while I can sort of understand the author wishing to keep this particular mystery going a bit longer as she obviously has more stories to tell, cynical me can’t help but see the drawing out of it as a delaying tactic.

But don’t let that put you off; this series is one of the best (if not THE best) historical mystery series around, and What the Devil Knows is another fantastic read.

Indirection (Borealis: Without a Compass #1) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Rabid readers. Backbiting authors. A romance convention from hell.

Shaw Aldrich and his best friend, boyfriend, and partner, North McKinney, are doing great, thanks. The aftermath of their search for the Slasher has finally settled down. Their private investigation agency is thriving. And after years of missed opportunities, they’re finally together. Sure, work might be taking up every spare minute, and their time together as a couple might have evaporated—but that’s normal, right?

When an author asks for their help investigating threats against a gay romance convention, Shaw sees an opportunity to shake up their routine and maybe have some fun. But the convention isn’t what he expects. Between the rabid fans and the backbiting authors, the death threats—which seem totally baseless—are the least of North and Shaw’s worries.

Until, that is, a bestselling author is poisoned in the middle of a panel. Then Shaw and North must race against the clock to find the killer before he (or she) escapes—and before the convention ends. But romance authors are more complicated than either North or Shaw expects, and a treacherous web knits the suspects together.

Shaw and North will have to unravel a skein of lies and half-truths to uncover the killer. It doesn’t help that, on top of everything else, Shaw just wants to find his next favorite book—and, if it isn’t asking too much, have sex with North at least one more time in his current incarnation.

Rating: A-

Note: This review contains spoilers for the previous Borealis Investigations series.

North and Shaw are back in Indirection, the first book in Gregory Ashe’s new four part series Borealis: Without a Compass, which sees them moving into a new phase of their lives – as both romantic partners and partners in a growing, successful business.  All the things I so loved about them in their first series – their crazy chemistry, their frequently hilarious (and frequently bonkers) banter, their great friendship and deeply-rooted affection – are still here, and it’s nice to see them (mostly) happy and in love while at the same time, they’re hitting the same speed-bumps we all hit when it comes to juggling the demands of work and home.

When we first met them in Orientation, their private investigation business – Borealis Investigations – was struggling.  North had lost his PI license due to a complaint made against him, and work was thin on the ground.  Things did start to pick up however, and they were doing better when, at the end of Declination, Shaw’s father hired them to conduct investigations for his company, and they’ve had as much work as they can handle ever since.  This is exactly what they wanted – they’re turning a profit, they’re making a name for themselves … but the downside is that their personal relationship is suffering because North is working every hour God sends and Shaw is feeling a little bit left out as a result. (Poor Shaw is the victim of some very inventive cock-blocking here – which is all I’m going to say!)

He’s also not completely happy with the direction the business is headed.  When he and North started Borealis, Shaw wanted to do something to help the LGBTQ+ community, to help people who often couldn’t get help elsewhere,  and doing corporate work Isn’t really what he wants to do.  So when the woman who runs Queer Expectations – a gay romance book convention – turns up with tales of threatening emails and begs for their help, Shaw is chomping at the bit to take the case and get out of their current rut of corporate drudgery. North isn’t wild about the idea – they’re slammed with other jobs and – but, well, he’s putty in Shaw’s hands, and of course they take the case.

As soon as they step into the hotel where the con is taking place, they’re plunged into a whole basket of crazy, from overenthusiastic and cosplaying fans to backstabbing authors.  The whole thing is doing North’s head in, while Shaw loves it and wants to fanboy his favourite authors! – but they find it hard to get useful information out of anyone and aren’t convinced the whole thing isn’t going to turn out to be a massive waste of time.  Until, that is, the convention’s headliner and bestselling author Scotty Carlson is poisoned during a panel, in front of a packed crowd.

Fingers are pointed and revelations come thick and fast as the number of suspects increases and several of the other authors suffer ‘accidents’;  the pace is almost frenetic as North and Shaw start to dig up some unpleasant truths in what feels like an episode of Murder She Wrote on speed (but with sex and a lot more swearing!).  I had no idea who the villain of the piece was – Mr. Ashe strews his red herrings around with gleeful abandon – but honestly, I was quite happy to sit back while North and Shaw did the heavy lifting and wait for them to figure it out because I was having so much damn fun reading it! They’re so well- attuned to each other that they work together like a well-oiled machine, and their roundabout conversations, where they go off at weird tangents, finish each other’s sentences and completely baffle everyone around them – are hilarious.

While the plot is huge fun, it’s also very meta.  Setting the story at a romance convention gives the author a chance to poke some gentle (and not so gentle) fun at the archetypes and prejudices and entrenched views held about the romance genre, and a lot of the conversations about romance – and queer romance especially – are on topics that have been doing the rounds of the internet and social media for a while – which doesn’t in any way negate their relevance.

While North and Shaw are trying to find out who is behind the poisoning and other ‘accidents’, there’s another storyline bubbling along in the background, which was hinted at at the end of the pervious series when North’s slimy “uncle” Ronnie hinted he’d be asking North to do some stuff for him and strongly hinted it had something to do with Aldrich Acquisitions.  Ronnie turns up again here and tells North he wants him to get some video or photographs of a man he knows is attacking young gay men.  North wants nothing to do with Ronnie and wants to tell him to go to hell, but Shaw’s cooler head prevails, and he says they’ll do what Ronnie wants – while they figure out how to deal with him in the long term.  We find out exactly what Ronnie is holding over North’s head here – and it’s not pretty.  I’m guessing this will be the series’ overarching plotline – and that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

For all of the craziness surrounding the investigation, there are some lovely quiet and tender moments between North and Shaw that continue to show just how much they care for each other, and I like that even though they’re a couple now, and even though they’ve known each other for years, they still have things to learn about each other and about relationships.

I was pleased to see Pari toned down a bit in this book.  I didn’t like her in the previous series – she was forever complaining about something and never seemed to do any work – here, she’s less shouty and actually proves herself to be a good friend at an important point in the story. Who knows, if this improvement continues, I might find myself actually liking her (gasp!).  Jadon is back, too, and I can’t help hoping that perhaps he’ll find a special someone as well – after all he’s been through, he deserves it!

My one complaint is that at times there was just a bit too much to take in.  There are a lot of suspects and a lot of moving parts to the mystery and I had to stop a couple of times and try to take stock of who was who and how A related to B and so on.  But that’s all I can really think of that didn’t work for me in this one.

Clever and exciting, sweet, sexy and often  very funny,  Indirection marks a triumphant return for the Borealis Boys, and gets this new series off to a very strong start. I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing what Mr. Ashe has in store for them next.

Starcrossed (Magic in Manhattan #2) by Allie Therin (audiobook) – Narrated by Erik Bloomquist

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When everything they’ve built is threatened, only their bond remains….

New York, 1925

Psychometric Rory Brodigan’s life hasn’t been the same since the day he met Arthur Kenzie. Arthur’s continued quest to contain supernatural relics that pose a threat to the world has captured Rory’s imagination – and his heart. But Arthur’s upper-class upbringing still leaves Rory worried that he’ll never measure up, especially when Arthur’s aristocratic ex arrives in New York.

For Arthur, there’s only Rory. But keeping the man he’s fallen for safe is another matter altogether. When a group of ruthless paranormals throws the city into chaos, the two men’s strained relationship leaves Rory vulnerable to a monster from Arthur’s past.

With dark forces determined to tear them apart, Rory and Arthur will have to draw on every last bit of magic up their sleeves. And in the end, it’s the connection they’ve formed without magic that will be tested like never before.

Rating: Narration – C; Content – B

Allie Therin’s engaging Magic in Manhattan series sets an intriguing combination of supernatural relics, powerful psychics, romance and magic amid prohibition era New York. Starcrossed is the second book, and you really do need to have read or listened to book one, Spellbound, in order to get to grips with it. I read and reviewed it in print when it came out in May 2020, and even though I HAD read book one, I found myself a bit lost to start with because there’s hardly any recapping and I wished I’d done a re-read to refresh my memory. But once I’d skimmed a few sections in Spellbound, I was up to speed and able to enjoy the story in Starcrossed.

There are spoilers for Spellbound in this review.

It’s Manhattan in 1925, and twenty-year-old psychometric Rory Brodigan works as an antiques appraiser in his aunt’s shop, earning the place a reputation as the place to go to sort out the fake from the real thing. This is because Rory’s paranormal ability means he’s able to touch an object and be transported into its history (which can also be incredibly dangerous as it’s possible he could end up trapped in that history in his mind) – and he’s something of a recluse, staying very much in the background and taking care not to reveal his ability to anyone. In Spellbound, handsome, wealthy congressman’s son Arthur Kenzie brought some letters to Mrs. Brodigan’s shop for appraisal, and through the course of the story Rory met other paranormals (Jade, a telekinetic, and Zhang, who can walk on the Astral Plane), and learned that that while Arthur has no magic himself, he’s dedicated to protecting the world from supernatural relics that could destroy it. He and Arthur also commenced a romantic relationship – although that’s not the strongest part of the story.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Gangster (Magic & Steam #2) by C.S. Poe

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1881—Special Agent Gillian Hamilton, magic caster for the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, has recovered from injuries obtained while in Shallow Grave, Arizona. Now back in New York City, Gillian makes an arrest on New Year’s Eve that leads to information on a gangster, known only as Tick Tock, who’s perfected utilizing elemental magic ammunition. This report complicates Gillian’s holiday plans, specifically those with infamous outlaw, Gunner the Deadly, who promised they’d ring in 1882 together.

The two men stand on the cusp of a romance that needs to be explored intimately and privately. But when Gillian’s residence is broken into by a magical mechanical man who tries to murder him on behalf of Tick Tock, he and Gunner must immediately investigate the city’s ruthless street gangs before the illegal magic becomes a threat that cannot be contained.

This might be their most wild adventure yet, but criminal undergrounds can’t compare to the dangers of the heart. Gillian must balance his career in law enforcement with his love for a vigilante, or lose both entirely.

Rating: A-

In The Gangster, the second book in C.S. Poe’s entertaining and exciting Magic & Steam series, we join Special Agent Gillian Hamilton for another exhilarating adventure, this time on his home turf of New York City.  As in the first book – The Engineer – the story is fast-paced and clever, featuring well-drawn, interesting characters and a number of vivid, expertly realised action scenes, and the author’s world-building continues to impress. Readers are immersed in a recognisable vision of Gilded Age New York, but with significant differences –  such as the magic-powered airships (the quintessential steampunk mode of transport!) that have replaced the transcontinental railroad – due to the harnessing of magic as a commodity during the so-called Great Rebellion – surely this world’s version of the American Civil War.

At the end of The Engineer, Gillian left Shallow Grave in Arizona to return to New York – but carries with him a promise from Gunner the Deadly – the outlaw with whom he’d become romantically involved – that they will see each other again on New Year’s Eve.  Gillian is alternately hopeful and anxious, desperately wanting to see Gunner again while trying to talk himself into not being too disappointed when Gunner doesn’t show.  Because what could a gorgeous, uber-confident, gun-slinging cowboy possibly see in an unprepossessing, repressed individual like Gillian?

It’s 31st December 1881, but before Gillian has to face either joy or disappointment, there’s a day’s work to be done, and on this particular day, he’s chasing down a lowlife called Fishback, a criminal known to have a penchant for killing cops and for working for some of the city’s biggest organised crime syndicates.  Gillian suspects Fishback is acting as the middle-man in the trade of weapons that use illegal elemental magic – and when he’s eventually able to question him, those suspicions are confirmed.  Fishback delivers the shipments – which originate somewhere “out West” – to Tick-Tock, a newly-arrived and widely feared crime boss/gangster who, so far, nobody has ever seen.  Not even Fishback, who tells Gillian he meets with a magical mechanical man who picks up the deliveries on Tick Tock’s behalf.

Shortly after the interview, Gillian heads to Grand Central to pick up Gunner.  He’s late, and worries that he’s missed Gunner or worse, Gunner hasn’t come at all.  But he has.  Their reunion is restrained because they’re in a public place, but Gillian is overjoyed and relieved to see the man who has occupied almost his every waking thought for the past two months.  And miraculously, it seems Gunner is pleased to see Gillian, too.

Gillian and Gunner barely have a moment to themselves (although they do put the few moments they have to very good use!) before they’re plunged headlong into a breathless game of cat-and-mouse with the most dangerous individual in the city.  And while they’re battling nightmarish mechanical men – gruesome half man/half machines with weapons surgically grafted to their bodies – fending off attacks from illegal magic and fighting for their lives in some really vivid, well-conceived action scenes, there are some lovely moments of introspection and emotional closeness, too, which cement and strengthen the connection between them.

Gillian and Gunner are both likeable, compelling characters it’s easy to invest in and root for.  In The Engineer, it was obvious there was more to Gillian than met the eye, and here the author sheds more light on what he’s hiding.  It’s also clear that he’s keeping some big, dark secret that he’s ashamed of and afraid of, something he seems to be desperately trying to atone for that has convinced him he’s unworthy of love or affection and that he doesn’t deserve good things in life.  He’s desperately lonely, rigidly controlled and hides himself in plain sight, but keeping himself hidden (in more ways than one) for over a decade is starting to take its toll, and at times we get a glimpse of a man close to the edge, someone dangerous and volatile.  But he’s also endearingly shy and charming with a dry sense of humour and a clearly defined sense of right and wrong… although the line between them has blurred a bit since he met Gunner.

Self-possessed, sexy Gunner is the perfect foil for Gillian, injecting some calm into his hectic life.  He encourages Gillian to embrace who he is and what he wants, providing solid support and reassurance on personal issues and has his back without question when they have to face off with the bad guys.  He’s not a great talker, but when he does have something to say he’s usually to the point and incredibly insightful; he sees Gillian in a way nobody else has, and has discerned things about him that no-one else seems to have noticed – that Gillian is a great deal more powerful than he lets on, and that there’s something devastating and immensely painful in his past.  But he knows better than to push for details; he’s prepared to bide his time and wait for Gillian to tell him the truth.

The Gangster is a terrific blend of tender romance and rollicking adventure yarn that will have you ‘heart-eyes’ and on the edge of your seat by turns.  The mystery is nicely done, with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers guessing, and I liked the glimpses we got of Gillian’s work life and of his relationship with his boss – who, he’s only just worked out, may possibly be harbouring a tendre for him. The author’s descriptions of the New York locations are really evocative, and her depictions of the mechanical men and Gillian’s amazing feats of magic are inventive and full of imagery so vivid and colourful as to create a lasting impression in the mind’s eye.  And best of all, the love story is never pushed aside in favour of the plot; there are some wonderfully loving moments between Gillian and Gunner, and even though the story takes place over just a few days, by the end, they’ve admitted that they want more from each other and there’s a new, deeper level of intimacy between them.  Which is when Ms. Poe drops one helluva bombshell that had me (mentally) screaming  “nooooooooooooo!” and searching frantically to see if I could find a release date for book three!

So, yes, there’s a cliffhanger, but don’t let that put you off.  The Gangster is a thrilling and utterly captivating instalment in the Magic & Steam series, and I’m on tenterhooks waiting for the release of book three, The Doctor.  I hope it’s not too long a wait!