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by Josh Lanyon
iUniverse, March 2006
230 pages
ISBN: 0595385125

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It is heart-warming to watch an author come into his own. Lanyon's first novel in a series, FATAL SHADOWS (2000), is more than an agreeable read. But it is fairly conventional, more plot than character driven, with its share of implausible moments. Its sequel, A DANGEROUS THING (2002), is an altogether different story. The characters become as interesting as the mystery. Unfortunately, at just that point Lanyon's publisher began experiencing difficulties, and fans have had to wait four years to see what is going to happen next. The results are more than worth the wait.

The series' hero is Adrien English, a mystery bookstore owner and writer. During the first case, he meets the brooding and conflicted LAPD Detective Jake Riordan. Jake refuses to admit he is gay, keeps dating one of his female colleagues, and until he meets Adrien has been involved mostly in S/M sex with males. When he actually kisses Adrien during the second case, it is a major breakthrough for him. But now he is having second thoughts.

Jake is also bedeviled by a satanic serial killer. Bodies turn up marked by ritualistic symbols, and Adrien's bookstore assistant, Angus Gordan, becomes the prime suspect, with Adrien's own role somewhat suspicious. Since Angus himself has been receiving death threats, Adrien has just given him a Christmas bonus and sent him away. Under the resulting cloud, he turns for help to Guy Snowden, a UCLA professor who is an expert on the occult.

Matters become further complicated as Guy begins to show an interest in Adrien. Meanwhile, his family life takes an unexpected turn when his widowed mother, who plays Adrien like a pro, announces that she is thinking of remarrying during the holidays. Her choice is a stuffy councilman with three daughters right out of some sitcom. Adrien puts on his stiffest upper lip.

The mystery itself grows so naturally out of the characters that the novel would have been a satisfying read even had it been written as an inverted mystery. As it is, it is intriguing how the author deliberately plays with readers' expectations. The satanic element provides the occasion to provide much interesting information about various forms of Satanism and Wicca and, at the same time, to examine the role and functions of traditional religions.

The novel is also about family, particularly about blended families. It is a romance. Without lecturing, it tackles various forms of homophobia, including self-hatred, and the tragedy of the closet. Via an amusing subplot, it looks at the art of writing and the relationship between fiction and life. In short, the novel is satisfying for a first read as a good beach mystery, for a second or third for reflection. Though a very different kind of writer, Lanyon assumes his readers are literate in much the same way Robert B Parker, Reginald Hill and Ken Bruen do.

Chapter 24 epitomizes the author's mastery of his craft. Only someone who is fully in control of his powers would have dared pull it off. For absolutely nothing happens in it as far as the plot. But everything happens as far as character and mood. For a moment the growing tension of the case as it nears its end is dispersed while Adrien pours his heart out to a total stranger, a spiritual figure a Wicca group has advised him to see.

When he leaves their meeting for the lonely drive back to the city, he sees a car in the distance coming toward him. In the hands of a lesser writer that car would, of course, be the prologue to terror, the killer coming to waylay our hero on a desolate stretch of road. Here, it is simply another vehicle on its lonely way to its destination. But it provides the spark for a heartfelt tribute from Adrien to the recently deceased writer Joseph Hansen, one of the greats in the genre. At this point the reader realizes Lanyon has joined Hansen in power and is now poised to surpass him.

It is absolutely incredible then that the novel had to be self-published. And unfortunately iUniverse has been the source of some real clunkers. When I learned from a discussion group that Josh had chosen to go this route, I offered to proof-read the manuscript in return for an autographed copy. (I was going to read it anyway, so I figured I might as well be useful.) That explains my name being in the acknowledgements.

It also explains why he feels dubious about my reviewing the book, fearing you may think it a bit of puffery. But as I truthfully wrote to him, it is my reputation that is going on the line if I mislead potential readers, not his. And I am not worried. As I was finishing up this review, I heard from two of my most trusted mystery-reading friends, a man and a woman. We are in complete agreement that this is a five-star novel.

Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, April 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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