Chasing Smoke by K A Mitchell

Rating: 8/10 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 
Title: Chasing Smoke
Author: K A Mitchell
Genre: Modern mystery
URL: Samhain Publishing
Price:US $5.50
Other Information/warnings:Angst, explicit m/m, language
Summary [from the publisher]:
In the best of times, Daniel Gardner hates visiting his family. With his boyfriend pressuring him for a mortgage-serious commitment, Christmas in Easton, PA sounds, for once, like a welcome escape. His old house holds more than memories of a miserable adolescence, though. It has Trey Eriksson.

At seventeen, Trey was taken in by the wealthy Gardner family after his father was jailed for his mother’s murder. Until he left for the Army, he fought a double-edged battle—for proof of his father’s innocence and against his attraction to Daniel.

Fifteen years later, things haven’t changed. Trey is still looking for the real killer. And Daniel has never forgotten how Trey used to sneak into his room at night.

Now new clues to the murder are resurfacing—and so is Trey and Daniel’s sexual chemistry. Except this time, Trey has come to terms with his orientation.

But their connection may not be enough to overcome the mistakes of the past. Not while a murderer still walks free…

My review: Constant readers will know I’m a huge K A Mitchell fan and when I heard she had a new novel out, I leapt on it. After Collision Course, I was sure I had a treat coming.

Unfortunately, this one just didn’t work for me. On the good side, Mitchell’s writing, particularly of sex and emotion, is now as fine as it gets. She’s hit her stride and she’s nothing to learn on that side of things, which is why I’ve rated this as highly as I have.

On the bad side, this story is full of inadequately flagged flashbacks which really make it hard to keep track of where you are, and what’s happening – Samhain don’t like to format flashbacks differently as I found with my own writing, so this isn’t necessary Mitchell’s fault, but it made a confusing plot even more difficult to follow. And since the plot pretty much left me cold anyway, that didn’t help at all. It’s a conspiracy mystery, and while the actions of previous American administrations make just about anything plausible, when you think you can have a president rumoured to be a drug addict, and a vice-president who can shoot someone in the face and not even be charged, the premise of this particular story, which drives all the events in it, is a tad strained. I’m happy to suspend disbelief with the best of them, but only if I’m distracted by the pretty.

Sadly, I didn’t like the lead characters – or any of the characters, actually – which surprised me, because Mitchell usually creates vivid and likable characters which would go a long way to cover any defect of style. Not here. I’m all for emotionally constipated characters being forced to face their inner feelings, but Daniel and Trey are too far gone, lost in their own frozen, narrow world views, the product of dysfunctional childhoods, and adulthoods spent in missed opportunities and barren pastimes. I believed they carried their teenage passion all this time simply because neither of them is emotionally mature enough to have moved passed their childish desires, but I couldn’t believe that either of them had the resources to grow up or bring out the best in the other one. Physically perfect specimens, but stunted as people.

A cold distance overlays the minor characters in this, befitting the winter setting, but not making for an enjoyable read, at least not for me. Daniel’s parents are unable to love him as he is, or even at all, Daniel’s brother is estranged, and Daniel’s present partner can’t reach his cold and ungenerous boyfriend. Mitchell chucks Ginny into the mix – a lesbian schoolfriend who supposedly taps into Daniel’s sensitive side and gives him a righteous kick in the arse – but because of Daniel’s lack of warmth and depth, and because he doesn’t care enough about Ginny to actually keep in contact with her, the relationship feels false to me, claiming too great an intimacy on too little knowledge.

I’m probably being too hard on this book. It’s like waking up to a snowy cold morning, after flying in from the Caribean, reading this book after the sunny and funny Collision Course. Chasing Smoke is wintry, humourless, angsty and angry, and some people will love that. It’s not that it’s a bad book at all. I’m talking purely about my emotional response, which is an individual thing. Mitchell nonetheless delivers a story with real meat on its bones, and real men, even if they’re not particularly winning. Not a reread for me, but far from poor value.