Title: If Two of Them Are Dead
Author: Jana Denardo
Length: Novella (166 pages)
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press (May 21st, 2014)
Heat Level: Moderate
Heart Rating: ♥♥♥♥ 4 Hearts
Blurb: Called to Hyde Park, New York, ex-Air Corpsman turned detective Victor Van Voorhis comes to only three conclusions about his newest case: the gulf between his status and the wealthy Westbrook family is no trifling matter; someone brutally killed a young mother; and the victim’s brother-in-law is one of the most intriguing men Victor has ever met.
Inventor Abraham Westbrook lost his wife five years ago and is worried about the effect another death in the family will have on his children. He spends most of his time tinkering with steamships, but even his inventions can’t distract him from wishing Victor was in his life for any reason other than a murder investigation—one where Abraham himself is a suspect. He’s hidden his desires all his life, but no longer. Somehow, he’ll catch the detective’s eye.
With murder standing between them and a killer stalking the Westbrooks, Abraham, and Victor’s chance at happiness could go up in steam.
Purchase Link: http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=4990
If there were one word that fully encapsulated If Two of Them Are Dead, it would have to be charming. Which was not what I was expecting, based on the title. But this Steampunk murder mystery is less about the dark, foggy streets and more about the interaction of its enticing main characters.
Victor Van Voorhis is an ex-airman turned police detective who is sent to the posh and opulent Hyde Park to investigate a gruesome murder. From the first page, Jana Denardo does two things extraordinarily well. The first is to underscore the massive difference between the wealthy and everyone else. Victor’s continual amazement at both the luxury and the tightly closed ranks is neatly woven throughout the story. It’s not an easy thing, to give backstory and a point of view without taking on the role of a lecturer or going into dull over-explanation. Denardo handles it, for the most part, with a deft hand.
I also must point out Denardo’s ability to create two likeable, interesting characters that did not fall into the usual tropes. Neither is described as perfect, both have their own personalities and quirks, and both were easy to root for. I wanted them to be happy; I wanted them to discover one another. And the way that the author was willing to wait should be applauded. I love it when a writer has enough confidence in the chemistry of their characters and their own skill to allow a relationship to develop over several chapters. It makes that moment of connection so much better.
While Victor investigates the crime and discovers that the wealthy of Hyde Park are, by and large, truly terrible people, he also becomes much closer to Abraham. Eschewing the expected path of running his family fur and textile trade, Abraham is a quirky inventor who creates steam-powered robot butlers, metal dogs, and personal airships. His reserved outward behavior hides a certain mischievous, commanding presence that I found a great foil for Victor’s more by-the-book attitude.
Steampunk is a difficult genre. Abraham’s inventions can only be part of the atmosphere that transports a reader to a place part historical and part fanciful. In most ways, Denardo is successful. There’s a slight stiffness to the prose that, in some ways, works favorably considering the period. However, there were several times I wished someone had gone through to loosen things up. There were moments when, instead of attributing it to the formality of the time period, I simply felt as if the author was uncomfortable with the scene or the emotions.
This is especially apparent in the sex scenes. While, as a couple, Abraham and Victor are wonderful, when they get together there’s a certain standoffishness about the entire thing. I like my intimate moments to be messier, to have that immediate want and need, to feel like I’m caught up in that passion. This is purely a personal preference; there is nothing wrong with any of the scenes. But, after so long of dancing around each other, building up tension, when that first kiss does finally happen, I actually missed it and had to go back to find the exact moment. I would have liked it if the book breathed during those scenes, allowing the reader to revel in the connection along with the character rather than being rushed through. I like to linger and there were times when the story did not linger with me.
The murder mystery here is secondary to Victor and Abraham becoming first friends and then more. While it is the driving force of the plot – Abraham’s sister-in-law was found murdered in her home and he is first a suspect and then Victor’s gateway into the closed off ranks of the rich – it is not an Encyclopedia Brown-esque tale that encourages the reader to pay attention and pick up clues along the way. We see Victor working. Observe many of his interviews, but the elusive pieces he is putting together are not something we would have discovered on our own. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. While I prefer to feel a part of a mystery, there is also the very real danger of making it too obvious and spoiling the ending. In the end, I enjoyed the story, and that has to be the mark of an effective approach.
To me, the most interesting part of the story was not the murder investigation, nor the fanciful steam-powered inventions that littered the pages. I was drawn in by the way Denardo handled a love story that was considered at best unconventional, at worst illegal during the time period. These two men knew, from the very beginning, that the very best outcome would be a life lived in secret; never being able to connect with each other in public as anything more than friends.
There’s a phenomenon that I like to call ‘looking for the roommate’. I couldn’t exactly bring my girlfriend home to my parents or be open with relationships, especially not five, ten years ago. And in books or movies, we were never allowed to be open. It’s something that’s easy to forget now, in the flush of gay marriage victories and shows like Modern Family. But I grew up looking for glimpses of relationships that weren’t permitted to be displayed. We were the ‘good friend’. The ‘roommate’. Decades of commitment, of love and passion and grace, would be reduced to some generic term, swept under the rug. And the generations before mine understood that unique pain, that particular hurt, better than we ever can. The ache of having who you love made insignificant.
I’m always interested when an author chooses to acknowledge this reality. It’s a depressing fact but it was the truth for countless love stories over the ages. And it’s a truth that needs to be told sometimes. Victor and Abraham are one of those, and the fact there will never be a happy marriage or children of their own only makes the moments they do have sweeter. More poignant.
But all of that leads to my one big problem with the book: the ending. The conclusion of the mystery ends with an awesome reveal, a spine-tingling chase, and a Nikola Tesla reference. Everything you could hope for. However, since the main thrust of the story is not the murder but the growing relationship, and since the author spent so much time letting us know how difficult their future would be, I expected at least a chapter winding things down and letting us get a glimpse at what Victor and Abraham look like as a couple. I was very much looking forward to seeing if Victor grew closer to Abraham’s children or how they managed to see one another regularly. If they did. Instead, we get less than a full page of platitudes and both men assuring one another they did, indeed, want to try to stay together. And then the book was done.
I honestly thought that perhaps I was missing a chapter. It is such an abrupt and clumsy hand-wave of a sendoff from an author I’d come to think of as thoughtful and methodical that it seemed wildly out of place. I would encourage the author to spend time with the characters after the main plot is done. Allow the whole story to wind down rather than chopping it off.
In any case, despite my disappointment with the end, as a whole I highly recommend the book. If you enjoy the slow burn of a relationship, fantastical inventions, and characters that make you want to keep reading, pick up this book immediately. I, for one, am hoping for more in this world. Seeing Victor and Abraham figuring out a life together, perhaps solving mysteries like some kind of madcap Sherlock, would be absolutely charming.