Pretty Pretty Boys (Hazard & Somerset, #1), Gregory Ashe
Rating: 4 Stars
Publisher: Hodgkin and Blount
Tags: Murder/Mystery, Cops-Detectives, Romance, LGBTQ
Length: 434 Pages
Purchase At: amazon
After Emery Hazard loses his job as a detective in Saint Louis, he heads back to his hometown–and to the local police force there. Home, though, brings no happy memories, and the ghosts of old pain are very much alive in Wahredua. Hazard’s new partner, John-Henry Somerset, had been one of the worst tormentors, and Hazard still wonders what Somerset’s role was in the death of Jeff Langham, Hazard’s first boyfriend.
When a severely burned body is discovered, Hazard finds himself drawn deeper into the case than he expects. Determining the identity of the dead man proves impossible, and solving the murder grows more and more unlikely. But as the city’s only gay police officer, Hazard is placed at the center of a growing battle between powerful political forces. To his surprise, Hazard finds an unlikely ally in his partner, the former bully. And as they spend more time together, something starts to happen between them, something that Hazard can’t–and doesn’t want–to explain.
The discovery of a second mutilated corpse, though, reveals clues that the two murders are linked, and as Hazard gets closer to answers, he uncovers a conspiracy of murder and betrayal that goes deeper–and closer to home–than he could ever expect.
Yes, we are
All of the king’s horses
And all of his men
Couldn’t tear us apart….
Barton Hollow – The Civil Wars – was my soundtrack for most of this book. It fits the mood, and the above quote from Birds of a Feather describes the GQ model looks of Emery Hazard and the equally killer looks of John-Henry Somerset. But it mostly felt apropos of the soul deep, to-the-bone hurt, desperation and longing of Emery Hazard, and of John-Henry Somerset. Ashe loves his existential angst and – from a literary standpoint – he drives that emotional nail home with feverish acuity here.
But I remember why I didn’t pick this series up. I can’t stand bullies, and bullies to lovers makes me feel like someone’s dragging nails down a blackboard. So I absolutely avoid that trope like I avoid SARS-COV-2. Why did I pick this up then? Well, Gregory Ashe has given me Shaw and North, and I love them. I’m utterly addicted and missing them. And some readers whose opinions on books make me take notice have convinced me I should read this series. Events also conspired as I sat at the local hospital with my sick husband for 5 hours last Sunday. I didn’t have my Kindle on me with the 2 ARCs that I should have been reading. My Kindle app did have Pretty Pretty Boys on it though. But I was having a massive internal fight with myself – don’t do this. DON’T. DO. IT. Don’t you dare start this book, Kaz! But you loved Borealis. But, nothing. There is a bully in this book, damnit. Don’t touch it!! I started it and then thought, ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’. I believe I partially hate-read this book because of Somerset. Hazard, I liked. He’s a fool, in my opinion, for coming back to Wahredua, there was a choice. Still, I understood his motivation.
This time around my daughter was my book buddy and all round sounding board. It made no sense for me to read this book. So we talked about it. But I knew going in that there would be an MC who was the other’s past bully. I’m an adult who can work out what I may be treading into. Anyhow, my daughter and I both have hard-limit reasons for not being okay about bullying after what we went through with my son, her baby brother. We loathe the bullying of pre-adolescents and teenagers, especially gay boys because my son/her brother is gay and we have had significant up close and personal experience of what bullying looks like. The fallout. Let’s just say it isn’t pretty. Let’s just say kids can get suicidal and die. Doesn’t matter the shape of the delivery mechanism. It’s fucking ugly. My heart ached.
There was an attempt by me at not being purposefully intense, but honestly, it was a seek and destroy mission re: John-Henry. You can be aesthetically “pretty” all you want, have a 100 watt smile, one that lights up the room and everyone in it, gay or straight, but that means nothing, because pushing Hazard down stairs, initials carved into flesh, the assault and death of a teenager with John-Henry seemingly in all the mix. Pffft. Our feelings were that there was an immense audacity to make JHS out to be a good guy. I believe in change. But I’m not anywhere near there with Somerset. I hope I can be.
I understood Emery Hazard’s need to get some answers, to potentially seek retribution. Maybe to find some solace in an illogical way. Because people who have been bullied feel a powerful need to prove something to their past tormentors, therefore themselves – and quite often – before it is (hopefully) exorcised. He was smaller and scrawny when he was a teen. No more. Hazard has come back a buff and well built man. Now he’s got the physical protection around himself. Hazard needs to know more and Wahredua must hold answers to maybe make his pain less. Maybe he can deal with the pain over the bullying, the death of someone close to him when they were kids, teens. Over the suicide of Jeff Langham. But was it suicide? He’s stewed on this for years. His time in St Louis as a detective allowed him access to one page about it. One page with more questions than answers about Jeff being ripped out of this life so cruelly. There were three boys around Jeff that afternoon, when he (supposedly) committed suicide, who were they? Emery’s pretty sure he knows. The same shitkicks who carved partial initials into him. The same person who pushed him down the stairs outside the high school’s gym. The same people who vented their spleen all over the boys they judged as gay. All that life ahead, all that life to live, all that promise… just gone. And why? What for? Because some lowlife bullies didn’t agree with who someone else liked or loved. Because being different is threatening to dull, gormless people.
Now Emery’s back in Wahredua, and we don’t get the story behind that, he’s going to do some digging, and he’s going to keep that fact to himself. He just doesn’t figure he’ll be paired with John-Henry Somerset. Teen bully and teen crush. Still a crush, albeit with unresolved anger mixed in. But J-H’s partner is leaving so Hazard gets to be the new partner. Emery doesn’t want to talk to Somerset, or Somers as he prefers now, outside of case details. He doesn’t want to hear how John-Henry is a “good boy” now. He also doesn’t count on how much of an alcohol problem J-H has. How much J-H wants to talk to Hazard about what happened, at a surface level, all those years ago. That he’s (maybe) sorry. That he’s changed. That J-H is down with anyone loving who they want nowadays. That John-Henry has feelings for Hazard too. Has since young but was too scared to let anyone know he liked dick as well.
Wahredua is catching up: PoC. The LGBTQ community. It’s supposedly better. More diverse. The college is now a big deal to the town, bringing in money and jobs and life and clout. But for all that there are cafes and restaurants and nice parts of the town, some diversity, there is an unwelcoming undercurrent from the old, rusted-ons. The Ozark Volunteers make sure of that with their white supremacist, homophobic rhetoric and their protesting /marching and pugilistic and political ways. Fellow police officers and peripheral workers aren’t always so progressive either. Then there is an intellectual, and I use that term loosely, employed at the college who is stirring up trouble with the Volunteers. There’s also a body or two and because it’s J-H’s side of police work he and Hazard are in the thick of the investigation. John-Henry knows how to navigate the weird and the wild in Wahredua because he’s lived there his whole life. His mother is the social doyenne of the town. But Hazard isn’t a people person, he left town for fifteen years, and he’s blunt when people don’t like that in a a town where certain manners are important… which is pretty delusive in this town.
John-Henry Somerset, I don’t trust you. Whatever is lying beneath the veneer, I hope that is isn’t close to what your teenage friend, the now messed up, supposed meth-head, Mikey Grames said to Hazard. But even so, you knew and you did nothing. I hope this can all be proved wrong or atoned for because I want to like you. I know you and Hazard are going to be an item. I’m not going to be all kumbaya because you can’t see your child, and Cora (the ex wife) doesn’t like you, and you drink your pain away. Not now. And the superficiality, that you’re a people person now – neither of them cut it for me. Give me something to fully hang my hat on.
North and Shaw are a mirror of Hazzard and Somerset. I can see this so clearly. I won’t bother with all the details, because there are quite a few, including the bigger man is the more sensitive, a domestically violent ex is in Hazard’s past as well. He drinks Schafly. J-H is from a wealthy family, can you say hello Shaw? Hazard isn’t. Can you say hello North? I preferred Shaw and North’s origin story, and wow, what a statement that is because they are some hugely frustrating, messy characters. So I think my work is cut out for me with this series if I’m going to go the distance. But I still enjoyed the book with trepidation always lurking. With unease.
Well, Gregory Ashe is very good at making the reader feel things, and they are far from comfortable things. There is such an emotional pain to his MCs that you almost feel coerced into comforting them yourself. We all know what hurts looks and feels like. It’s part of the human condition. So much about the vulnerability the MCs display is relatable for people. There’s loads of it in this author’s writing. Thing is, a lot of people are scared of being vulnerable. Terrified of the potential for rejection and abandonment that comes with it, etc, so when characters allow you a glimpse into such soul-baring feelings, it’s powerful, you can emotionally empathise and be safe yourself. Ashe knows exactly how to work that angle. And then you are also dragged in by the intense sexual undertow as well. Mix these things together and it’s potent. That is especially brilliant of Ashe as there is no sex on page. I’m certain this will go the way the Borealis books went – that there will be other people for these characters before they allow themselves to genuinely find one another. But there will be looks and touches and internal angst aplenty. And slow burning MC romance is slow. I mean, Hazard is already with Nico, someone who was part of the murder investigation. But let’s face it, it’s all smoke and mirrors because John-Henry is the real mark for Hazard. And Hazard the real target for John-Henry.
I enjoyed the murder/mystery plot in Pretty Pretty Boys. The murderer was telegraphed, but these are predominantly romance books. The romance is important, no matter that anyone might try to say otherwise, but it’s also not the sole purpose of the book(s). The investigative work is an important part of the glue that binds the story. But the development of the character’s complex relationship, the personal and interpersonal angst and push-pull are the biggest arc and drawcard. The gothic vibe is strong with this series already and it adds to the sultry nature of the storytelling. The atmosphere of Wahredua and Hazard’s reintroduction back into the town he grew up in, the one that gave him such grief for being gay, is brooding. It’s full of living, breathing juxtapositions. It’s claustrophobic, just like 100% humidity feels when you try to suck in oxygen. Pretty Pretty Boys also has the same investigative methodology as Borealis, plenty of people who could be responsible for a murder or two jump onto the page for a short stint then jump off nearly as quickly. A couple of people stay but most are like disposable hand wipes.
I’m interested to see if Ashe can get my walls down around John-Henry. I’d like that to occur but I need truly good reasons. I want to give people a fair go, but we’ll see. I won’t be brushed off with BS like ‘maybe I was pushed down the stairs because worse things could have happened if he didn’t do that. He saved me’. Or, ‘he’s so gorgeous, his blond hair and tidal-pool blue eyes’. No. No. Fucking NO! I want surprises. I want better than that.
Typos exist, people’s names included. That’s poor form. I noticed and clipped the issues as I read on my Kindle. It’s not hard to proofread and clean it up.
I very much felt torn for even reading Pretty Pretty Boys. I’ve bought Transposition, book #2, though. So I’m in… with one foot hovering near the exit door. Not because it isn’t hellishly entertaining writing with the promise of what Gregory Ashe does so well – emotions, desperate and long-held lust, investigations that can span several books, a lot of interpersonal play. It starts and promises more. It’s engaging. It’s visceral. But I have my own hard limits. I suspect the next book will be make or break for me. I don’t know. But I do know that I have spent way too much time on this review and I don’t write reviews easily. So I felt plenty of feelings about the MCs and the writing itself. I’m interested. I like this author. I don’t review books on this blog unless they hold some degree of emotional connection or importance to me. These messed up, pretty boys get 4 Stars!