REVIEW: Criminal Past by Gregory Ashe
Readers please note: The following review contains spoilers both for this book and for some of the other books in Gregory Ashe’s Hazard and Somerset gay mysteries. If you want to avoid spoilers, do not read further in this post and check out my review of book one, Pretty Pretty Boys.
Dear Gregory Ashe,
So this one was…not good. I’ve gotten hooked on your Hazard and Somerset mystery series; I inhaled the first five books in twelve days and stopped only because I had to review books I’d requested as arcs. The series is romantic and action-oriented. Angsty, too, since the basis for the relationship is that when they were sixteen and attending the same high school, John-Henry Somerset, school jock and purportedly straight, was one of three bullies who made the life of Emery Hazard, the school’s only openly gay boy, a miserable and sometimes harrowing hell.
Criminal Past, book six, begins when Somerset and Hazard, now dating as well as partners on Wahredua’s police force, encounter the man who was once the ringleader of the high school bullying: Mikey Grames. The encounter takes place at the state fair. It is brief but it shows that unlike Somerset, who is genuinely remorseful over the past, Mikey is as hateful and despicable as ever. Mikey smirks as they leave; clearly he is up to something bad, but the Hazard and Somers don’t yet realize how bad.
Hazard has been receiving disturbing and frightening photographs. His high-school boyfriend, Jeff Langham, was raped by Mikey and another boy, and the act led Jeff to commit suicide—or so Hazard thought. But the pictures tell a different story. They suggest that Jeff may have been murdered. The most recent is labeled with a warning: the same thing will happen to Somers if Hazard doesn’t take care.
Somers discovers the photos and he is angry, hurt and confused. Hazard has been getting them for weeks and has not only not mentioned it, but hid them from him. Somers thinks that’s because Hazard hasn’t forgiven him for the past. Hazard himself doesn’t know what his reasons are. For a little while there it looks like they might break up, but they still have to work together and their proximity saves the day.
(Incidentally, I liked the scene where that happened; Somers realized he needed to tell Hazard he didn’t mean all he’d said. There’s a lot of non-communication in the series and most of the time it works because it fits these characters. That very thing makes it extra romantic when they do talk things out and handle a conflict well.)
The case is complicated and strange. It begins when Wahredua’s creepy mayor, Sherman Newton, asks for Hazard and Somers specifically to guard him. The mayor claims his life has been threatened by a disgruntled and mentally ill employee, Ted Kjar, and he wants police protection. Hazard and Somers give him the side-eye; guard duty is not work for detectives, and the mayor tried to have them killed in the past. They are sure his story is cooked up.
But when the mayor is nearly shot and a fellow cop takes the bullet and dies, Emery and John-Henry have to investigate Kjar’s role in the shooting. They chase the shooter to a booby-trapped apartment building. Hazard catches up to the killer and recognizes him despite a ski mask. It is Hollace Walker, another alumnus of their high school.
In his youth Hazard considered Hollace a friend, but it was more they were both outcasts and spent time together for lack of other friends. Emery remembers Hollace as a boy with a love of dangerous, complicated stunts. The rigged building seems exactly like his M.O. And after Hazard and Somerset return home Hollace takes another shot at them.
Babysitting the mayor turns out to be eventful; there’s a break-in and he is stabbed and left at death’s door. Hazard hesitates to shoot the intruder because the violent scene triggers a PTSD-like reaction (he was stabbed in book five, Reasonable Doubt). This time, the assailant does turn out to be Kjar, and he dies when Hazard finally fires his gun.
During an interview with Kjar’s widow, Jo, Kjar’s writing project, a book on local history, comes up. A chapter is missing from the manuscript. Jo reports odd behavior on her husband’s part. She mentions that she was visited and interviewed by two men who presented themselves as agents of the FBI. When Somers and Hazard chase another lead, they get caught in a skirmish between two local meth manufacturers.
There’s more to the attempts on the mayor’s life than one rogue ex-employee, clearly. And when Swinney, a cop on the drug beat, hints that Lender, her dirty-cop partner, may be involved, the case becomes even more dangerous.
Emery and John’s romantic relationship, too, turns into a minefield. Somers flashes back to his teen years in his dreams. Memories of his past cruelty to Hazard shake him now that he has admitted he loves him. Somers’s happiness hinges on their relationship, but how can Hazard forgive him? Somers feels that Hazard must hate him as well as love him. How can the past remain in the past when it haunts the present?
Will the mayor survive the shooting? Will Hazard and Somerset, sniffing a conspiracy, be proven right? How is Hollace Walker connected? Who is behind the meth war and why? What is Mikey Grames’s smirk about? How did Jeff Langham die? And will Somers and Hazard’s love survive the psychological trip back to their shared, brutal past?
As I said at the top of this review, this is not my favorite book in the series.
There were things to like about this book, absolutely. I liked the way Somers’s memories of his worst abuse of Hazard in his teens surfaced. When I read the first book, Pretty Pretty Boys, it was hard for me to square how the same man Somers was in the present could ever have participated in the extreme acts he had in the past. This book does a great job of showing what made that possible. The reasons behind it are utterly convincing and they in no way exculpate him.
I also liked the Jeff Langham backstory for the most part. Though the speech the villain responsible for Jeff’s fate made was over-the-top creepy, the themes here were strong. Sometimes memories can be inaccurate, especially memories of the dead, who can no longer speak for themselves. Hazard loved Jeff, and it makes sense that this love would color his perception of the case and hamper him in his investigation.
Another thing I liked was when, in his first meeting with Hazard and Somerset, the new sheriff alluded to their attitude through a story about his old boss’s restructuring decisions.
“He said that the ones who had trouble, the ones he had to watch, were the good ones and the bad ones. The ones in the middle never caused anybody trouble.”
“That’s the stupidest bullshit I’ve ever heard.”
“Maybe,” Engels said, lacing his hands over his belly. “I’m not saying it’s true everywhere. I’m not saying it’s the only guiding light. But there’s some truth to it, I think. After all these years, watching a lot of different men and women put on the uniform, I believe there’s something to it. And as I said: I’d heard about you two. You solve hard cases. Impossible cases. You do damn fine work. But being that good, it makes you different. And if you’re different, you start to think you’re special. And that’s when a cop or a deputy starts to go bad: when he thinks he’s special.”
I was happy to see this aspect of the books interrogated because I have been feeling more and more with each book that Hazard and Somerset are inching toward vigilantism. I’m not a fan of vigilante justice. Especially in Hazard’s case because he has gotten more angry, intense and reactive starting with book five. The combination of his emotional reactiveness with his growing tendency to cut ethical corners has made me feel that he is someone to be wary of.
I had a multitude of issues with this book, though, too. To start with the more minor ones, there were annoying inconsistencies:
A little over six months before this book, Somers turned thirty-four. Here, it is mentioned that Hazard is younger than Somers. So he can only be thirty-three or at most thirty-four. Yet in this book he’s thirty-five.
We are told here that Jeff Langham came out in high school but in most if not all of the earlier books, we were repeatedly told that Hazard was the only openly gay kid at their school. In addition, we learned in Pretty Pretty Boys that unlike Hazard, Jeff was closeted and that his sexual orientation had only been identified by the boys who raped him shortly before he died. In fact, according to that book that was the impetus for their attack on him.
On kindle page 21, Chief Cravens’ office smells of air-freshener “called fresh linen or something like that”; ten pages later, we read that, in the same room, still in Hazard’s POV and only twelve minutes later (each chapter starts with a helpful time stamp), “The old man smell had grown stronger and it was cloying now, making Hazard wish for an open window or even an air freshener.”
On page 121, Somers states, in regard to Newton’s encounter with Kjar, “He’s alive. He’s barely alive because of us. Barely, but he’s alive.” A little later, on the same kindle page, Somers says, of Kjar, “He killed Newton. He would have killed you if you hadn’t stopped him.” Clearly a copy error but a jarring one.
It’s also said that Hazard’s arm (stabbed badly in the previous book) “flopped painfully.” So why is he not wearing a sling?
This is sloppy writing that could easily have been fixed with better editing. Sadly, the lack of editing shows in more important aspects of the book, too.
These books have become more and more dark and angsty. This might not bother a reader who spaces the books apart, but the cumulative experience of reading them back-to-back is that they start to edge into emotionally overwrought terrain. This one reads as if the author couldn’t think of another way to raise the stakes than to crank everything up to eleven whether or not that makes for a logical, well-paced and effectively-crafted reading experience.
Another thing that is probably harder to tolerate when reading the books close together is various slurs such as, in this book, homophobic and fat-shaming ones (i.e. “porker”). After a while it starts to make me feel bombarded with verbal abuse.
And then there’s the thing that ruined this book for me. I might have been willing to overlook some of these other issues if not for the plethora of horrifying torture scenes. They went on for chapter after chapter, and they were truly gruesome. After a while it read like gratuitous violence and filler. It’s easy to get emotional reactions from readers with excessive and sadistic violence. There are better, subtler ways to engage readers but they require more care and thought.
The character of Mikey Grames was over-the-top, a walking cliché of a disgusting, twisted villain with not a single attractive trait to give him nuance. Some of the villains in the other books were equally OTT but since they didn’t get as much page time it was easier to deal with.
I have other complaints, too. The symbolism with Hazard’s wrist was heavy-handed. A big plot turn (what happened with Swinney) was predictable. The motive behind the mayor’s knifing was weak because the villain’s plans relied on variables and so the villain could not have known how what they put in motion would play out.
Much of the descriptive writing was strong; that is one of the consistently good things in this series. The chemistry between Hazard and Somers is another; they’re still wonderful together. If I’m hard on the books it’s at least in part because there is so much potential in the relationship that the books practically beg for tighter writing, better thought-out and less convoluted mysteries, stronger editing and more attentive copyediting. There’s a lot of ambition here but much of it is not realized. And like most of the other books in the series, this one lacks polish. C-.