Son of a Gun by AM Riley

Rating: 9/10 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 
Title: Son of a Gun
Author: AM Riley
Genre: Mystery, m/m romance
URL: ManLoveRomance Press
Price: US $6.99
Other Information/warnings: Violence, explicit sexual content
Summary [from the publisher]:

Politics, drugs and secrets from the past collide in the town of Boerne Texas and end in a chase across the Devil’s Backbone.

Stefan Sanchez’s number one reason to leave Texas was closeted deputy Chet Blain. When Stefan returns for the funeral of his best friend, he is confronted by painful memories, Chet’s recriminations, and a hunky Secret Service agent who seems determined to make Stefan’s business his business.

My review: Riley writes damn fine mysteries entwined with complex relationships – see her Bill Turner series (Amor en Retrogrado and Death by Misfortune) for two fine examples of that – and Son of a Gun is no exception.

Stefan Sanchez was fostered by a man who had ever reason to hate him, the rich and powerful Patrick O’Connor, Texas Attorney General (in the movie version of this book, he has to be played by Josef Sommer. He’d be perfect 🙂 ) Stefan’s best friend was Tommy O’Connor, and together with Samantha and Chet, they spent a childhood full of adventure and secrets and codes that only they understood. As they grew older, Tommy fell in love with Sammy, later marrying her, and Stefan fell in love with Chet. But Stefan’s desperate love met the rock-solid resistance of Chet’s determination to stay in the closet, so he fled to LA where he established a successful career as a children’s author.

Stefan hasn’t been back to Texas since that midnight flit. But now Tommy is dead in a hunting accident, and Stefan has  come home again to attend the funeral. Losing Tommy is devastating – but there’s more going on, he realises. Tommy’s wife Samantha is missing, and no one wants to tell Stefan why. Chet Blain is now a local police officer, and while he’s still happy to meet Stefan for illicit sex, there’s something he’s not telling Stefan about Tommy’s death. And why is the O’Connor house full of men in suits, one of whom takes a very personal interest in Stefan’s whereabouts?

Stefan’s story comes out in small flashbacks to his childhood experiences with Tommy and the others, but also through excerpts from his work in progress, the latest in the wildly popular “Backstreet Boys” series, which he’s trying to finish under threats from his impatient agent. As he writes, he draws on his childhood experiences –  he explains, “Charlie and Billy were him and Tommy” – and those same experiences begin to throw some light on the mystery of one friend’s death and the disappearance of another.

Old friendships are tested. Old loyalties are questioned. Stefan struggles to know who to trust, who is the traitor? Is Agent Evans his ally, his would-be lover – or the snake in the grass trying to use Stefan to get to Sammy? Does Chet have Stefan’s back like he always used to – or have they all changed too much since those early years?

The plot twists and turns, Stefan pokes and is occasionally bitten in the arse by his explorations, and Agent Evans and Chet Blain take it in turns to drive him somewhat crazier than he was before. Riley never lets us be sure who’s working for whom, and whether Stefan is making a terrible mistake as he entrusts the truth to this or that person.

This book isn’t as dark or squalid as the Bill Turner series, although many of Riley’s usual themes are explored, especially the effect of the closet on those in it and those in love with those in it. It’s also a story about friendships, betrayal and how those of us with fucked up childhoods do our best to escape the past and make our peace with it. It doesn’t end with a conventional happy ever after ending – in fact the ending is downright ambiguous – which may turn some readers off (I personally saw it as leading to a possible sequel because we have only begun to mine the potential of Stefan’s relationships with his two would-be lovers.) The plot is one which might make a more satisfying movie than a book, and at least one thread is tied up a tiny bit too easily. However Stefan’s biting commentary, both directly and indirectly through his manuscript, is very entertaining, and his pigheaded refusal to give up looking for Sammy draws us in as the dangers increase and the mystery deepens.

Stefan is a complex and bitter character, haunted as much by his father’s dishonourable crimes and shameful death as he is by having to abandon his first great love because Chet is too cowardly to come out as gay. Yet he is warm and clever too, and grateful to the family who saved him from a grim life in the care system, and his alcoholic mother.

Other characters are less well delineated. Ironically Tommy, the dead man, is the one most vividly brought to life. Chet, while playing a major role in the story, remains somewhat opaque, and Evans is still a complete puzzle even when we learn just how and what and why he’s even there.

Because Stefan spends so much head time in the past, it’s not surprising that it’s the characters as children we see most clearly, both in Stefan’s memories, and then in their alter egos’ adventures in Stefan’s books. It’s a vision of childhood which is at times idyllic, sometimes excruciating, and all very real.

Riley’s writing is, as usual, competent, and she handles the shifts between the three narrative streams quite well. Not so competent is the line editing, which is frankly dreadful with missing words and punctuation on every page. It would have been nice if someone had edited out the overuse of character’s names in the dialogue too. ManLoveBooks charge the highest price for their products of all the small m/m presses, yet their editing and covers are amateurish to say the least. It’s not good enough, and it’s an insult when they have an author with Ms Riley’s talent on their books.

Nonetheless, the author’s writing is too good to avoid simply because of the poor editing. I enjoyed Son of a Gun immensely, and would love to see more of these characters.