I'm pretty tangled up about this thing. The writing is faultless, it has one of the finest examples of tautly maintained characterisations I've ever read (the MC is -- there's no other word for it -- spellbinding
) and yet I came away feeling so ill and wrecked from the whole experience I didn't know which way was up for a long while. So hm ... I guess this is your squick/trigger warning: I talk about women getting beat up because, well, the book
Roger is a LAPD Homicide Detective. He's tightly-wound, controlled, mechanical, and in a sort of limbo after the death of his lover. Roger used to be a member of the Leather community and his sexual identity is firmly tied to that aspect of the BDSM lifestyle. A murder investigation starts the book off in a very personal way: a mummified cadaver is left on Roger's sofa. A string of murders ensues -- all with links to the Leather community, and the initial victim's brother, Sean, becomes both a bugbear and an attraction.
I said characteristion but I really meant everything. The plot is impeccable -- measured, thoughtful, and even spools backwards to give us little snapshots of Roger in the past. It's done tenderly: Roger trying to be the most all-American, wholesome little boy he can be after his Damascene moment with a Leather magazine, Roger at his gawkiest and most wide-eyed when he first hits the Leather scene. The mystery unfolds in a very procedural way, but it's so inextricably wound into Roger's life and past that it doesn't turn into the jumble of names and faces procedurals sometimes do.
The author uses their characters judiciously: everyone's given enough presence and dialogue so you're not focusing exclusively on Roger's POV, which is a good narrative gesture towards the reader, I always think (a very common complaint I have of BDSM books is how often you spend in the main protagonist's head, and how often the narration is actually just a litany of the speaker's feelings. I'll grant you that's probably necessary to a degree but emotional intensity doesn't equal repetition, and everything needs perspective). The author does not stint on that perspective in this book. The voice is third-person (which is about half the job done already, between you and me), and Roger's unflinching honesty and integrity mean the lens of the story pans out and focuses in in equal measure.
I loved so many of the secondary characters: Jay, the patriarch of the Leather community Roger used to belong to, Roger's partner Mary Anne, who's given a small but very vocal feminist voice, the slightly intangible but ever-present Peter. They could all exist independently of Roger; while the narrative is his, the story is elastic enough to give us little sideline glimpses into their pasts. Everything is written so generously, from Mary Anne's developing relationship to Jay and Liam -- small gestures, snippets of history, everything gentle and integrated.
But I loved Roger best. He's a taut, focused, controlled character and yet when Sean comes into the story you can see Roger start to fray around the edges almost immediately; you can see how Roger's starving
. And the author puts that hunger into the story: the narrative starts to loosen up, the language gets less stylised and more informal, the diction relaxes. It's done so imperceptibly and skillfully you barely notice it, but it's there. If it was a conscious authorial choice, I applaud its execution; if it wasn't, I think it's an indication of how firmly committed the author was to their main character.
It probably behooves me to say at this point that if anyone ever makes a counter argument about the objectionable stuff in this book, everything in me will strain to capitulate and do an about-face on it. I loved this book that much. I love it so much I want to warp space-time so I can handwave it all away.
(Creepy declarations about the power dynamics in a heterosexual relationship? *handwave*
Creepy-bordering-on-insane ideas about corporal punishment in said relationship? *handwave*
Spousal abuse and its modern manifestations? *handwave*
Consent and Christian Domestic Discipline: our societal role as the outside observer? *handwave handwave frantic handwave*)
A character in the book practices Christian Domestic Discipline, which is -- not to be too reductive* -- husbands disciplining their wives. In this book that discipline is physical, or at least that's the implication. The wives in question have bruises and, to paraphrase the author, the look of being beaten women.
So we're all perfectly clear, and as far as I can ever be bothered making this sort of disclaimer, if there's consent in anything between two adults then that's the end of it. What this book does -- in brain-boiling detail -- is to carefully and seriously instill quite a lot of doubt that the discipline in question is being done in a consensual way. The women we're talking about don't sound like people empowered through the usual D/s relationship roles. They sound like they're being abused. Amazingly the narrative then very deliberately shies away from any kind of concrete commentary on it; Roger is very, very carefully neutral about making any judgement when he meets one of these women -- the encounter ends with Roger driving away, seeing this woman "scurry back into her house when her husband turned." That's it, that's what he sees.
It gets worse. Roger admits the husband in question is an angry man but: "it was hard to say how much of the man's underlying anger was at himself for being gay, and how much was just a natural violence." I would accept that sort of dispassion if it came hard on the heels of some sort of conviction for assault, but not as an idle thought passing through a POLICEMAN'S mind, holy fucking christ. The clincher here is that the very next sentence, is how the thought of Sean under the man's fists sickens Roger. Sean, apparently, deserves so much more than that.
But that's not the bit that made me want to swallow my tongue. It's this bit, when Roger is responding to his partner's query about whether the husband sets his teeth on edge:
"He did, of course. But not in any way that would have pleased Mary Anne. Roger, being a dominant predator, recognised another predator, of course. That he rigidly controlled his instincts ... didn't make him any less the male animal he knew himself to be."
What the fuck I can't even.
"Can't imagine letting someone make all my decisions for me," said Mary Anne.
"I think there is a certain serenity in letting go of responsibility," said Roger.
This, to be clear, is Roger likening the previously mentioned battered wives with the submission normally practiced in a consensual D/s relationship.
Let me put all this in perspective, just in case it's lacking any. All of this -- all these bald statements about the nature of man and how natural selection made the penis the king of the world -- all of this bullshit is thrown into relief by Roger's attitude to the other side of submission the book is concerned with. The Leather lifestyle and its BDSM practices are described with a sort of reverence and awe that sets the tone of the book; even Jay is treated as a kind of spiritual guru and mentor. Roger's holds the lifestle in almost holy regard, and when dead subs start turning up everywhere, Roger's anger becomes very specific; subs are to be cherished and protected and the crimes against them are the more egregious for that sacred rule being contravened.
The book basically posits there are two different sets of rules for two different kinds of submissives. One is the natural consequence of male humans being predators. The other set of rules applies to the guys Roger knows.
I don't usually go to bat for this sort of thing. My entire history of reading both het and gay romance is built on doggedly ignoring the controversy and heading like an arrow towards the sexytimes. I don't usually give a shit, is what I'm telling you. I'm here for the sex and the clean-up afterwards. If there's cuddling I give the thing a big tick and move the fuck on.
But this book tore me in half with how much I loved it and how much it made me want to claw my face off. It goes into my most-loved shelf as well as the one I put things I want to dissolve in lye.
5 stars for the writing, one star for the dissonance.
* "too reductive" ahahahahahahaha