Snowball in Hell by Josh Lanyon – review

Title: Snowball in Hell
Author: Josh Lanyon
Genre: WWII gay romance, detective story
URL: Aspen Mountain Press
Price: US$ 5.99
Other Information: mild gore, explicit m/m
It’s 1943 and the world is at war. Journalist Nathan Doyle has just returned home from North Africa–still recovering from wounds received in the Western Desert Campaign–when he’s asked to cover the murder of a society blackmailer.
Lt. Matthew Spain of the LAPD homicide squad hates the holidays since the death of his beloved wife a few months earlier, and this year isn’t looking much cheerier what with the threat of attack by the Japanese and a high-profile homicide investigation. Matt likes Nathan; maybe too much.

My review:I’ve been reading this author’s Adrien English stories (of which more in a separate review) but though I found them moderately entertaining, they were too filled with annoyances for full satisfaction. Not so this perfect little gem, which managed to overcome my squick about stories set when homosexuality was illegal (if not actually punishable by death), and whisk me along with a tight, well-thought out plot, making me sniffly a couple of times and leaving me with a lovely ‘Ahhhh’ feeling at the end.

The sex is pretty good – better written than most of this genre’s entrants – and well integrated, so it never seems gratuitous, but the really beguiling aspect of this novella is the characterisation, so much stronger here than in the English novels, and avoiding the power inequality between the two men that blights the earlier novels, even though this stories shares many of the same tropes with Lanyon’s other stories (the closeted cop, the supportive widowed mother, the writer cum amateur detective as hero etc.) Here we have two strong, damaged leads, both believable and three-dimensional, set in a credible, strong, intriguing plot which kept me guessing almost to the end, and a love story which remains true to the historical realities while giving us the hopeful ending these two good men surely deserve.

I thought the noirish atmosphere very well done, the dialogue convincingly 1940’s with only a single possible anachronism to complain about (does anyone know when ‘immune system’ came into use?), Doyle’s shaky mental and physical health after his war experiences, the depiction of the restrictions of wartime America, the covert existence and emotions of gay men in this period, all rang true and were depicted vividly and movingly.

I was also pleased to see the editing was much cleaner in this story than in the Adrien English stories. Buying this story as part of the Partners in Crime 2: I’ll Be Dead for Christmas collection makes it rather expensive – but it’s an absolute bargain as an ebook from Fictionwise, and represents excellent value. This is a story which begs to be made into a movie a la The Donald Strachey Mysteries, and I hope it is. In the meantime, Nathan and Matt can play happily on the movie screen inside the reader’s head. Highly recommended.