REVIEW: Wages of Sin by Alex Beecroft
Dear Ms. Beecroft.
I enjoyed, as I always do, your sublime prose and the beautiful love story. I had more reservations about this story than I have for the previous two of yours I reviewed, though, reservations all revolving around the plot. In addition, I’m pretty much paranormaled out, so reading a ghost story was not high on my list of things to do in the New Year. I enjoyed the ghost aspects of the story, though, because the sheer brilliance of your writing made it sufficiently spooky and I thought the premise of the ghost of a woman scorned in a m/m romance was a fascinating choice.
You focus in “Wages of Sin” mostly on a ghostly mystery. Charles Latham arrives at the family manor, scared out of his wits from an overactive imagination and a truly ghostly encounter, to find his father dead. He’s convinced it’s murder, but his older brother’s friend, Jasper, a Catholic priest, declares the house haunted. Turns out both are right and as Charles and Jasper discover each other, they also uncover the mysteries of death and hauntings at Clitheroe Hall.
Historical m/m romances have a hard row to hoe (harhar) in that they have to deal with the man’s own understanding of what we would term his homosexuality and they have to provide a believable HEA in a time where discovery equaled death, both in ways that contemporary romances can avoid. If the conflict of the book is NOT in these two areas, the story seems anachronistic, but the conflict can get boring and repetitive if always and only based in these two areas. In this story, you try to deal with this issue in two ways.
First, Charles is a complete virgin and seems to have very few issues after his encounters with Jasper, which seems a little unbelievable. Jasper, on the other hand, has a dark and terrible history because of his homosexuality that I won’t reveal because of spoilers. But for a Catholic priest in the 1750s to have completely reconciled his religion and his homosexuality seems a lot unbelievable without a great deal of explanation that the 86 pages of this story don’t really have time to give us.
Second, the narrative suspense and action is almost entirely taken up with the ghostly mystery, rather than the romance, leaving the heroes’ themselves realistically constructed, if slightly thin, but their relationship, to my mind, entirely underdeveloped. In addition, while the story itself is short, the narrative timeline is a mere few days, making the romance sudden and their commitment to each other at the end unrealistic, especially considering Jasper’s history with Charles’ family. In a connected concern, the pacing seemed uneven, with high tension, hidden trips, and a long reveal at the end between the main characters that all seemed to pull and push the story along in jerks and pauses and starts. (But I don’t know how much of this was my own distractedness, to be honest.)
That said, your writing performed its normal ravishing of my soul and I almost didn’t mind about my issues. Your grasp of the fashions, sights, sound, smells, and feel of the mid-eighteenth century was stunningly vivid. People die of weird medical concerns. Things smell bad. The fashions for men are strange to us. Men are brutal to women and the upper classes brutal to the servants who make their lives comfortable. They cared about things — Papists and class — in ways we don’t understand today. I don’t think I’ve ever FELT like I was *in* a particular time more than I did in this book. Even your other books weren’t as good with the smells and sounds and feels of another time.
And I’m still pondering the use of gender dynamics as the center of the ghostly mystery. What does it mean that a woman scorned is the focus of the suspense in a romance about gay men? I find that a fascinating juxtaposition.
So although I’ll probably be writing a paper about this story when I write my book about romance heroes, and I’ll be rereading the ghostly mystery to see how you did it, I won’t be rereading it for the romance the way I will your other books.
This story is available individually from MLR Press as an ebok, mobipocket, and will be combined later this month in print with stories by Laura Baumbach and Josh Lanyon in a volume called The Mysterious.