REVIEW: Pretty Pretty Boys by Gregory Ashe
Dear Gregory Ashe,
I saw your Hazard and Somers series recommended and though I don’t read many mysteries or m/m novels, something made me want to pick it up. There’s a long free preview of this first book and by the time I reached the end of it, I wanted to buy the book.
Police detective Emery Hazard has returned to Wahredua, Missouri, fifteen years after his escape to St. Louis at age eighteen. Hazard is gay and was on the receiving end of some horrific bullying during high school. He left town immediately after graduation because of it. Recently he was drummed out of the St. Louis police department for reasons that don’t become clear until book three in the series. He chose to return to Wahredua partly because of that and partly to look into an old open-and-shut case, the apparent suicide of his high school boyfriend, Jeff Langham.
In the interim, Wahredua has grown into a more tolerant and cultured place. Hazard barely notices; he’s focused on his high school days and on Jeff’s suicide. Although he has since bulked up a lot and gained expertise in self-defense / martial arts, at first his return to his hometown puts him back in the headspace of a vulnerable, abused teenage boy.
Hazard believes a few of his tormentors played a role in Jeff’s death and he looks forward to dealing with them. But when he arrives at the police station for the first day of work, he is assigned John-Henry Somerset, one of those bullies, as his partner.
Hazard considers quitting on the spot but when Somerset tells him about a string of hate crimes against the Wahredua’s LGBT community, he decides to stick around long enough to solve the case and to investigate Jeff’s suicide in parallel. Once these things are successfully accomplished, he’ll leave Wahredua. In the meantime, he’ll try to put up with Somerset.
John-Henry, now known to most people as Somers, has developed into someone better than the teenage bully he once was. He knows that what he and his two ex-friends, Mikey Grames and Hugo Perry, did to Hazard went way, way beyond shitty and horrible. Somers is genuinely remorseful, and he wants to have a better relationship with Hazard now.
One of his reasons is that they’ll be working closely together, another is that Somers is the kind of person who makes friends everywhere and is not used to being disliked. Yet another reason is his guilt and his need to make amends. And then there’s his secret attraction to Hazard, buried deep inside Somers’s psyche.
Hazard makes it clear that on the job he’ll have his partner’s back because that’s what’s expected of a good cop, but that he is not interested in listening to Somers’s apologies. He remains unbending for most of the book. He begins to know the adult Somers better through their work, though, and the apparent change in John-Henry confuses him.
Meanwhile, an abandoned trailer home in a bad part of town catches fire. When the fire is put out, a dead body, burned beyond all recognition, is found in the trailer, and there’s clear evidence of arson. Hazard and Somerset are ordered to find out the identity of the dead man and discover who killed him.
The investigation will take them from the heart of a violent Neo-Nazi group, the Ozark Volunteers, to the campus of the Wahredua’s Wroxall College, to a gay bar called the Pretty Pretty, to the death of Jeff Langham fifteen years earlier, and to the dark, confusing, and messy truths of their shared past and their growing attraction.
This book. I have a list a mile long of things that didn’t work in it, but I loved some aspects of it, too. I’ll start with the book’s weaknesses.
There were massive holes in the mystery plot. In the course of their investigation, Somers and Hazard meet with Mimi, one of the Ozark Volunteers and a potential source of valuable information. Mimi lives in an area on the town’s outskirts where the Volunteers reside, but unlike the rest of the Neo-Nazis’ dwellings, prefabricated homes, Mimi’s house is a huge, expensive, beautifully designed mansion on a hill. Somerset, who has lived in Wahredua for most of his life and knows many people there, is as stunned to see it as Hazard. Wouldn’t there have been talk of the huge, gorgeous house near the town? Wouldn’t there have been construction workers passing through Wahredua when the mansion was being built?
Smaller inconsistencies, too, abound. Nico, a younger man who flirts with Hazard, surrenders his phone as evidence but later produces it to share some relevant photos with Hazard, though it’s not mentioned that the police ever returned it to him.
At one point it’s stated that a character can drive from Manhattan to Wahredua in four hours. Try sixteen. Another time, we learn that Wroxall College was a safe space for Hazard when he was a teen; later we’re told that it wasn’t. More importantly, I’m confused about the timeline of Hazard and Somerset’s formative high school experiences.
Some of the secondary characters are flat and therefore don’t feel real. A couple are unbelievable. Dr. Kamp, the medical examiner gets drunk, sleeps on the job and is naked under his lab coat. Lynn, aka “Lynk” Fukuma, a lesbian, Japanese-American anthropology professor at the local college, is a former eco-terrorist reputed to have founded a group that killed twelve people with a bus bomb. Not only did Lynk’s characterization make me uncomfortable with regard to representation, it’s also impossible to believe that a respectable college would ever employ someone like her as a professor.
The language had some weaknesses. The book needed more dialogue tags; I got confused about who was saying what more than once. And the POV shifts within scenes, sometimes more than once; that can be jarring. There were a lot of metaphors, too, so many upfront that the beginning felt overwrought and I thought about quitting. This smoothed out by the second chapter (or maybe I just acclimated to this style of writing) so I’m glad I kept reading.
The writing is also frequently good, and particularly so when it comes to description. Ashe awakens the sensory imagination and uses his scene setting to convey emotions, as in this example, which comes when Hazard sees Mikey Grames, his high school tormentor, working the register at a convenience store called Casey’s:
The Casey’s was too small. The smell of fresh plastic off the magazine rack, the pizza warmed under the heating lamps, the sugary-fruit scent of the frozen drinks whirling in their machine—it choked Hazard, and he couldn’t seem to clear his throat. He needed out of this place. He needed air.
The syntax is sometimes evocative too:
And that was the part that had shaken up Somers, shaken him up like a can of beer in a paint mixer, the simple fact that Hazard was hot.
The dialogue is effective in demonstrating just how much the heroes avoid certain topics.
Despite all my issues, I not only stuck with the book, but stayed up late and kept the pages turning. There is one reason why: the relationship.
I have an abiding love for redemption stories but I’m not usually so into the ex-bully trope; I was bullied as a child so it’s a hard sell for me. Nevertheless, the relationship between Hazard and Somers is beguiling.
Part of it is all the ways they are opposite. Hazard is shut down and Somers is open and gregarious. Hazard has brilliant (at least per the other characters; in this first book it’s not always evident from his actions) analytical and deductive skills. Somers is a people person; he shines in interviews with witnesses and suspects and is good at figuring out what they are feeling.
Coming from a wealthy, privileged background, John-Henry was held in high standing as a teen and is popular even in the novel’s present. Emery was the school pariah as a kid and has to field homophobic comments even in adulthood. Hazard accepts his sexuality; Somerset is so deeply closeted that he insists on viewing his college sexual experiences with guys as mere experimentation and (at least when he’s sober) considers himself straight.
Emery is well-dressed and immaculate, Somerset rumpled and frequently hung over. And while Hazard has transformed from a scrawny, vulnerable kid into a tough, built up, and intimidating man, Somers, despite his frat boy demeanor and childhood bullying, constantly attempts to make amends for the past and issues heartfelt apologies.
Which brings to my next point. Another thing that make their on-page chemistry so magical is that though Somers had the upper hand in high school and used that power against Hazard, Hazard is now the one in the driver’s seat. Somers wants very badly for Hazard to accept his apology and develop not just a good professional partnership (a hard row to hoe in itself) but also some friendliness. But Hazard doesn’t have to give any of that and indeed, withholds the latter for much of the book.
There’s at least one moment when Hazard knows he can hold something over John-Henry, sink him deeper into the undertow that his current life has become. Somers is broken up about his separation from his wife (largely his fault) and the fact that she won’t let him see their two-year-old daughter. He drinks himself under the table on an ongoing basis. Hazard knows he can hurt him, and when he chooses not to, it’s a heroic act.
And then there’s the fact that their past frequently pitted them on opposite sides, Somers a bully and a participant in cruel and extreme acts, and Hazard his encroached-upon victim, made to suffer them. Yet now they work well together. In terms of work, it doesn’t take them long to develop a successful, even terrific, partnership.
I loved Hazard, with his quiet, still-waters-run-deep persona and the way he’d dug himself out of a miserable childhood. He’s vulnerable, particularly to his cheating long-distance boyfriend, Billy, and to memories of the past, of the abuse he suffered and of Jeff and Jeff’s death. His disorientation at the way present-day Wahredua and present-day Somers are so different from his memories of them is beautifully captured. He’s a man in danger of falling and he grapples for every possible handhold.
Somers was less interesting, since he’s more of an open book and certainly less admirable (he becomes a lot more interesting in the later books, though). I liked that he’d grown to recognize how horrible he had been as a kid not through his relationship with and knowledge of the adult Hazard but all on his own. He recognizes how wrong he was and it gives him some maturity in the midst of immature actions such as dealing with his separation from his wife and child from the bottom of a bottle.
The two heroes’ chemistry is undeniable, and more than anything else about the book, kept me enthralled. As for their difficult past, it isn’t that the book convinced me entirely of all the dynamics of their teenage enmity or every aspect of their reunion. The portrayal was solid but not amazing. I bought it not entirely because of that but also because the book made me want to believe it with all my heart. I loved Emery Hazard, was less keen on Somers, but the chemistry between them, the sexual and romantic tension, are magical things.
I texted with a friend recently about the book and said this:
My head has a plethora of issues
But the heart wants what it wants
This is the kind of book that leaves me with a big, dopey grin on my face and it did just that. So… objectively it is not that good a book but when I finished it, I knew I would inhale the rest of the series. I was right. I’m now on book five. C+ / B-.
PS While the books are romantic, they are not romances. Things are heading that way but at a measured pace and it will take a number of books to get there. So for now there is no HEA or HFN. Or sex. But the book is more romantic and sexy than many I’ve read.