Snowball in Hell, by Josh Lanyon

31 Dec

Cover Snobwall in Hell

(Please see footnote – September 21, 2015)

A long time ago, when I was just starting to review, Lisabea (before she was L B Gregg) had a little giveaway at her blog. As luck would have it, I was the winner. This was the result.

I have since read more than a few m/m romances, though a quick look shows I’ve only reviewed a handful of them. I must remedy this, because there are some really good authors writing it.

Snowball in Hell, by Josh Lanyon

This book was originally released by the now-defunct Aspen Mountain Press in 2007 and re-released by Carina Press (my copy has a 2011 copyright notice). I do not know whether this is a revised version or not, but I know I really, really like it, and I want to talk with some detail about all the things I like about it. Therefore…

Reader beware: there be spoilers within!

Here’s the blurb:

Los Angeles 1943

Reporter Alan Doyle had his reasons to want Phil Arlen dead, but when he sees the man’s body pulled from the La Brea tar pit, he knows he’ll be the prime suspect. He also knows that his life won’t stand up to intense police scrutiny, so he sets out to crack the case himself.

Lieutenant Matthew Spain’s official inquiries soon lead him to believe that Nathan knows more than he’s saying. But that’s not the only reason Matt takes notice of the handsome journalist. Matt’s been drawn to men before, but he must hide his true feelings–or risk his entire career.

As Nathan digs deeper, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay one step ahead of Matt Spain–and to deny his intense attraction to him. Nathan’s secrets may not include murder, but has his hunt put him right in the path of the real killer?

Sometimes, when a reader is lucky, she finds a writer whose voice is such a perfect match for her reading, that a rare alchemy occurs. The world, with all its mundane worries, fades away, leaving instead this new reality, perfect contained within itself.

This is what happens to me when reading Josh Lanyon’s books, even those where parts of the story doesn’t work for me.

Talking specifically about this book, I like so very many things!

It’s set in Los Angeles in 1943,  and both heroes are WWII veterans, both having returned from the front lines due to injury, though one fought in trenches in the South Pacific while the other reported from the North of Africa.

As any avid reader of historical romance can tell you, neither the place nor the time are common in the subgenre, which made this story stand out from the moment I read the blurb.

Then, there’s Lanyon’s writing, which immediately draws the reader into the time period. It is simultaneously vivid, atmospheric and intimate, with nary a wasted word. It feels like being in the middle of a film noir, and it’s easy to picture Boggart’s persona when reading Matt Spain, even though it’s Doyle who resembles the actor’s physical type more closely.

The suspense/detective plot is probably the weakest part of the story–which does not mean is bad per se. It’s just that character development, within a historical setting that remains true to the period, take over.

I loved how the relationship between these two characters, who by all appearances couldn’t be more different, sparks from the first meeting, then slowly develops into true interest in the person behind the sexual attraction. There’s that flash of interest upon first meeting each other, followed by a gradual understanding of what separates them.

Matt is a straight arrow. The son of a cop and a widower still mourning his wife, he is determined to make his career his life. He is also very aware that any misstep in this particular investigation–as the victim is the son of a very wealthy man–can cost him dearly from a professional standpoint. His immediate attraction to one of the main suspects is, therefore, not only inconvenient but quite risky.

Nathan, on the other hand…Well, Nathan has been running from himself since he was old enough to understand that he is gay. Brought up by Catholic parents of the brimstone and hell variety, he drinks too much, has dangerous sex encounters with total strangers–often–and lives in mortal fear of having his sexuality made public. He is deeply conflicted, as many LGBTQ children from deeply or overtly religious households are. One the one hand, the glories of the chosen deity are constantly praised. On the other, these children are told and shown that their very nature is an abomination.

I really liked that, despite there being only a few women in the story, they are characters in their own right, not merely two dimensional place holders. I also cheered the fact that, even though Matt has been attracted to men for a good long while, he truly and deeply loved his wife. There’s a hint–unless I misread the timeline–that he may have had a few relatively mild sexual encounters with men while deployed, but Lanyon does not excuse this cheating by making her frigid or a bitch.

And I just love how gritty the setting is, how dire the consequences are–for both characters–were their proclivities become known to anyone else. The circumstances in which they meet and fall for each other are not glossed over. Their story, like the stories of real homosexual men and women living in societies where deviation from the norm can mean ruin, is dark and viscerally real.

This story does not end with a fake rosy future in which there are no obstacles to the protagonists’ happily ever after together. Instead, it ends with both characters perfectly aware that they risk their careers, their freedom, and even their very lives, by choosing to be in a relationship with each other.

And yet, Lanyon makes me believe that Matt and Nathan do have a chance to be happy together, despite everything: the time, their circumstances, society’s views.

Snowball in Hell is not a light, fluffy romance, but its very realism makes it all the more powerful for me. 9.50 out of 10

~ * ~

On September 18, 2015, Josh Lanyon “came out;” after some ten years of misdirection, and the strong implication that, to suggest that the author was female was downright offensive…it turns out Josh Lanyon is a cis female. At present, she is married to a man; I will not further speculate on Lanyon’s sexual orientation. I, for one, am not amused. Despite liking Lanyon’s writing, I doubt I’ll ever again mention them here.

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