The Mermaid Murders (The Art of Murder #1) by Josh Lanyon (audiobook) – Narrated by Kale Williams


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Special Agent Jason West is seconded from the FBI Art Crime Team to temporarily partner with disgraced, legendary “manhunter” Sam Kennedy when it appears that Kennedy’s most famous case, the capture and conviction of a serial killer known as The Huntsman, may actually have been a disastrous failure.

For The Huntsman is still out there… and the killing has begun again.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – B+

Note: I have no idea what’s with that cover. Fingers crossed the author/publisher can find a more appealing one someday.

The first book in the author’s The Art of Murder series, The Mermaid Murders pairs up hard-boiled Senior Special Agent Sam Kennedy of the FBI Behavioural Analysis Unit with one of the bureau’s rising stars, Jason West, who has been seconded from the Art Crimes Team and instructed to assist Kennedy with his latest case, ostensibly because Jason is familiar with the area in which the crime has been committed.  It’s not that simple however;  Sam Kennedy might be something of a legend in the bureau, but his often abrasive manner and single-minded focus hasn’t earned him many friends over the years, and following a very public disagreement with a state governor, he’s  in the dog-house and the higher-ups want someone keeping tabs on him.  So this new partnership is far from a match made in heaven; Kennedy doesn’t want a partner – especially one he doesn’t know or know if he can trust, and makes it clear from the off that he knows Jason has been assigned to babysit him.  But Jason isn’t easily cowed; he’s just as pissed that he’s been sent to ‘handle’ Kennedy and insists right back that he’s part of the investigation and isn’t going to be pushed aside.

“I’ve been asked to try and make sure you don’t step in it again, sure, but I’m not here to hold your cape, Batman.”

More than a decade earlier, Sam was responsible for the apprehension of a serial killer who preyed on teenaged girls in Kingsfield, a small town in Worcester County, New England.  At the time, it was a regular holiday destination for Jason’s family and he had actually been close friends with the first victim, Honey Corrigan.  But now, more than a decade later, it seems the killer has struck again; another girl dead, a small, carved mermaid charm found by the body.  Is this the work of a copycat?  Or did Sam get the wrong man all those years ago?  Given that he’s currently under a cloud, his superiors are twitchy in case the killer is still out there and the wrong man is in prison – but Sam knows that’s not the case.  The right guy is behind bars, but there’s no evidence to support the theory of a copycat or disciple either, which leaves the investigation… where?

The Mermaid Murders boasts an intriguing mystery with plenty of twists and turns, and the author  captures the somewhat insular and suspicious attitude of the local population very well, which lends the story a slight air of menace.  It also introduces a couple of compelling protagonists in Sam Kennedy and Jason West; Sam is large, imposing, taciturn and doesn’t suffer fools. He takes his job seriously, has an enviable record of solving cases and, in spite of the current snafu, is clearly very well respected.  Because the story is told entirely in Jason’s PoV, we never get into Sam’s head which means he remains somewhat frustratingly enigmatic, but it’s clear there’s a lot going on beneath that immovable exterior.  Jason is a dozen years younger (Sam’s mid-forties), he’s smart, he’s intuitive and loves his job in Art Crimes:

“It’s just that…people keep killing other people. That’s the worst of humanity. Art is the other side of the coin. It represents the best of humanity. And what I’m here for is to try and protect that…legacy.”

After a few days, Jason is surprised to discover that even though he doesn’t much like Sam Kennedy, he’s strongly attracted to him.  He has no idea about Kennedy’s sexual preferences but even if he did, Jason doesn’t make a habit of going to bed with people he doesn’t like, so it’s academic and utterly ridiculous. Until it isn’t.  When Sam makes a move, Jason is surprised by the intensity of his reactions to the man and can’t resist, no matter that he knows it’s a bad idea. As this story is setting up a series, the relationship between the pair is basically confined to a couple of explosive sexual encounters, but the author also subtly conveys the changing nature of Jason’s feelings towards Sam, and shows that while Sam is outwardly all about the job and compartmentalising his life, he’s capable of affection and tenderness, even though it’s brief and not overt.  When the book ends, Sam and Jason have agreed to keep in touch, and maybe go on an actual date… but whether they manage that remains to be seen.

Kale Williams is a new-to-me narrator, and I enjoyed his performance overall, although it took me a while to get used to his characterisation of Sam.  It’s not that it’s bad; actually it’s quite a good interpretation of the character, because he’s blunt and very rarely expresses emotion, so the somewhat monotonous (as in a same pitch, not boring!) delivery works.  It’s more that Mr. Williams adopts a kind of whisper/speech delivery for his dialogue in order to sustain the lower pitch (I’m guessing); as I said above, it’s not horrible, it just took me a chapter or two to get used to.  Otherwise it’s a very strong performance – the pacing is spot on and the character differentiation is good so there’s never any confusion as to who is speaking, and he does a good job with the action/set pieces, injecting the right degree of anticipation or fear or whatever else is required into his voice.  I’ll certainly be listening to more books in the series.

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Unmasked by the Marquess (Regency Imposters #1) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The one you love…

Robert Selby is determined to see his sister make an advantageous match. But he has two problems: the Selbys have no connections or money and Robert is really a housemaid named Charity Church. She’s enjoyed every minute of her masquerade over the past six years, but she knows her pretense is nearing an end. Charity needs to see her beloved friend married well and then Robert Selby will disappear…forever.

May not be who you think…

Alistair, Marquess of Pembroke, has spent years repairing the estate ruined by his wastrel father, and nothing is more important than protecting his fortune and name. He shouldn’t be so beguiled by the charming young man who shows up on his doorstep asking for favors. And he certainly shouldn’t be thinking of all the disreputable things he’d like to do to the impertinent scamp.

But is who you need…

When Charity’s true nature is revealed, Alistair knows he can’t marry a scandalous woman in breeches, and Charity isn’t about to lace herself into a corset and play a respectable miss. Can these stubborn souls learn to sacrifice what they’ve always wanted for a love that is more than they could have imagined?

Rating: B-

Unmasked by the Marquess, the first in Cat Sebastian’s new Regency Imposters series, marks something of a departure for her in that, unlike her previous books, it isn’t a male/male romance. The two protagonists are a man and a woman – but the fact that this isn’t a standard m/f romance quickly becomes apparent when we learn that our heroine – a former housemaid named Charity Church – has actually been living as a man for the past six years and feels far more ‘right’ in herself dressing, acting and living as a man than she ever did as a woman.

(I’m using ‘she’ and ‘her’ in this review, even though Charity is non-binary; the author uses those pronouns throughout the book for reasons she explains in her author’s note, so I’m going to follow her lead).

Robert Selby and his sister Louisa have come to London with the object of securing an advantageous match for Louisa. Unfortunately however, coming from rural Northumberland makes an entrée into the right circles in London rather difficult as they know no one who can introduce them. Remembering his father’s old friend, the late Marquess of Pembroke, Robert hits upon the idea of asking the current marquess for help; if a man of his standing is seen to take notice of Louisa, then surely other men will follow and a proposal will ensue.

Alistair de Lacey has spent the years since the death of his profligate father working hard to rebuild the family finances and to claw back the respectability the late marquess threw away in favour of a life filled with excess and dissolution. When a charming and rather attractive young man named Robert Selby is ushered into his library, Alastair expects to be tapped for money, so is surprised when Selby tells him that the late marquess stood godfather to his (Robert’s) sister, and asks for Alistair’s assistance in launching her into society. But Alistair – who has just received (and turned down) a similar request from his late father’s mistress on behalf of her eldest daughter (Alistair’s half-sister) – isn’t inclined to help and sends the young man on his way.

Charity – the author has her think of herself as Charity in the chapters from her PoV, while Alistair thinks of her as Robert and later, Robin – is disappointed and isn’t sure how to proceed. The next day, however, an unexpected encounter with Pembroke and his younger brother, Lord Gilbert, engenders a remarkably quick volte-face on Pembroke’s part and soon, Charity – as Robert – and Louisa become part of Pembroke’s small circle.

After this, things move very quickly – rather too quickly in fact, because in no time at all, Alistair and Robert are the best of friends, and while we’re told this friendship develops over a couple of weeks, on the page there’s a big jump from their not knowing each other at all to being extremely comfortable with one another. Given that Alistair has been established as overly cautious and very proper, the way he so easily befriends Robert feels somewhat out of character. The way they seem to just ‘click’ is nicely conveyed, but it’s still quite a leap from there to bosom-buddies, and I couldn’t really buy it in context.

Alistair is well aware that he can feel sexual desire for both men and women – although this being the nineteenth century, he hasn’t acted on his attraction to men – so it’s not the fact he’s attracted to Robert that gives him pause. It’s the way Robert has so quickly worked his way under his skin, the way his presence in a room can light it up and the way Alistair feels so much more alive when Robert is with him. So it comes as a huge disappointment when, on the morning after their first kiss, Alistair learns that Robert lied to him about Louisa’s being the old marquess’ goddaughter. He lashes out angrily, even going to far as to accuse Robert of intending to blackmail him over their kiss – and the only thing Robert can think of to allay Alistair’s fears on that score is to confess that he’s not Robert, but Charity.

Of course Alistair is even more furious at this deception – but after a few miserable days and weeks alone, decides that having Robert – as Charity, Robert or whoever she wants to be – is preferable to not having her in his life at all. He doesn’t care what’s under her clothes; it’s the person inside he’s interested in, but the trouble really begins when he asks Charity to marry him. Charity insists Alistair hasn’t thought it through; how can a marquess – especially one as concerned with reputation and propriety as he is – possibly marry a former housemaid? And not only a former housemaid, but a former housemaid who doesn’t intend on living the rest of her life as a woman and will be damned if she’s going to give up the freedoms she’s enjoyed for the past six years?

There is a lot of plot and backstory stuffed into the book, and I have to admit that sometimes it felt like overkill. Charity’s reasons for becoming Robert Selby are good ones, but it’s complicated, and becomes moreso when an important fact of which Alistair – and the reader – has been ignorant, is suddenly thrown into the mix near the end of the book. The strongest part of the story is actually Alistair’s progress from curmudgeonly stick-in-the mud to a man who is much more forgiving of the foibles of others and comes to realise the importance of love and the difference between living and merely existing. He’s become aloof and inflexible, but once he becomes involved with Robert, the real Alistair, the man who is decent, kind and funny, begins to emerge, and Ms. Sebastian does a very good job of having him recognise just how far from his true self he had strayed. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Alistair and Gilbert, which is well done and feels very ‘brotherly’. It’s clear that the two care for each other very much, but have lost some of that feeling in recent years because Alistair’s need to be all that is respectable and proper has caused him to lose sight of what’s really important in life. I liked Charity and her determination to hold on to her independence; I liked her gumption and the way she forces Alistair to see that the rules that govern his life don’t work for everybody.

There are some good, meaty points being made about what it’s like not to fit into established roles, about how few options were available to women and the way society treated those who didn’t wish to conform – which is why I was disappointed when the conflict in the romance boiled down to a very old chestnut, and one I’m not particularly fond of – the ‘I will not let you sacrifice yourself by marrying me because I am not suitable’ one, which always feels as though one person is telling the other that they’re stupid and don’t know their own mind. It’s not that Charity is wrong to point the problems out to Alistair – they’re undoubtedly bigger problems than face many a cross-class couple in historical romance – it’s that she’s prepared to ride roughshod over his feelings rather than try to hash out a solution that will work for both of them that I didn’t like. I also found it more than a little jarring that a man who was trying so hard to be as unlike his father as possible didn’t think twice about the fact that he would be doing to his own (future) children exactly what his father had done in making his children a topic of gossip and scandal in a society that, sadly, did visit the sins of the father upon subsequent generations.

Even with those reservations, I liked – although I didn’t love – Unmasked by the Marquess and am going to give it a cautious recommendation. The writing is sharp and witty, and I liked the principals and secondary characters. But while the relationship between Alistair and Charity has plenty of sexual tension and their verbal exchanges are entertaining, the romance is somewhat lacking in the early stages and I never got rid of that feeling that I’d missed something amid all the busy-ness of the rest of the plot.