Description: Repressed scholar Percival Endicott Whyborne prefers to hide away in his museum office with books in dead languages to avoid any and all attention—and so, when attractive ex-Pinkerton private detective Griffin Flaherty asks for the help of the museum’s ciphers’ specialist to translate a book that his employer thinks might be a clue to a case he’s working on, Whyborne would rather not have anything to do with the gorgeous man—especially since the time is such that his own attraction is illegal, which is rather dangerous when the man he’s attracted to is a detective! But despite his misgivings, the two are drawn very close together on the case, which goes deeper than a mere murder and into realms of necromancy and Lovecraftian horror.
Impression: 3.75 out of 5, which I’ll round up to 4 on the sites I put it on. …Which is a strange rating for me to give, but it was basically a 4 on enjoyment but a 3.5 on execution.
This book is essentially filled with everything I love: Awkward protagonists who exist far too much in their own head, dashing love interests struggling to be dashing after trauma and tragedy in their past, strong female characters, a historical paranormal setting, and Lovecraft. Frankly, I got extremely hyped the moment the Tomb of Nephren-ka was namedropped, and even more excited as this turned out not to be just a nod but an inherent part of the world and setting—Whyborne studied at Arkham, and the world is explicitly Lovecraftian, where the creatures from the Mythos exist in the outer planes as we have all feared. I’m pretty sure the canning factory folks are originally from Innsmouth, and I have my suspicions about the museum’s head librarian.
I loved the characters at once—Whyborne reminded me strongly of Booth from Monette’s Bone Key, and, whether that was deliberate or not, this invited comparisons; but while the similarity was undeniable (and lord knows I love Booth to the end of the world and back), Whyborne had his own unique traits that I am sure will come to shine even more across later books. Most notably and differently, despite his self-deprecation, Whyborne has an inherent love of himself that even he doesn’t seem to be aware of, giving him a frequent indecisiveness that makes him unpredictable. In addition, that lack of awareness of his own care for himself is frequently a useful character flaw throughout this story—a pride in his interactions with others, a desire to do them harm for insulting him yet again, a sort of constant sense that he knows he is better than the snubs he is receiving, and an attraction to evil as a result. He is so ready to be insulted and betrayed that he jumps at it. As our hero, of course, this draw to evil is something he can fend off, but I’m excited to see how this develops and/or changes in later books when he’s actually in company that loves and supports him.
As a whole, the pacing felt somewhat off throughout the book; characters seemed to throw themselves into work during the waiting periods, but somehow found time to dally (or engage in dalliances) during what felt like the time-sensitive parts. In addition, the through-line felt somewhat convoluted in a way that it’s hard to get into without spoilers, but the movement between each clue is extremely indirect to the point that some of the individual questions don’t get answered to my satisfaction (if this was information the victim wanted to give his father, why cipher the book? If the book was already ciphered when the victim received it, despite already being in a mix of languages that most people couldn’t read, how was it a functional tool he was actively using? etc). Despite this, the actual plot was extremely straightforward—the moment I met the villain I knew who it was, what they wanted to do, and why, because we didn’t meet any other characters in the story who had motivation—so the individual clues occasionally felt to me more like they were obscuring the plot-line than building it. (I did read it in one go, so your mileage may vary; maybe a slower read would help there).
In addition to the pacing issues, some parts of the story just felt unpolished to me. I kept getting distracted by unresolved editorial questions, some of which were introduced by including the Mythos as canon to this world (i.e., spoiler whited out even though I’ll try to keep it vague: that mummy has some important key features in the Mythos, which are mentioned in this narrative but also dismissed by the plot; but if the Mythos is real in this setting, even if the things around that mummy weren’t part of this story’s plot-line, wouldn’t they still be a general issue in this world now)? In addition, while the entire climax of this story was awesome as heck (I would reread this entire story ten times over just to enjoy the rush of that whole last sequence), the specific resolution of Whyborne’s family story-line felt difficult for me to believe after the motivations and amount of history established there, and unfortunately that was the note we ended it on. (There are, what, W&G 10 books out now? So perhaps it comes up again, but even so, I found it unbelievable in this individual book’s context).
Basically: This was a very early book by Hawk—given that their first book appears to have come out three months before this, it may even have been the first book written by Hawk—and it’s got some of the technical roughness that it’s fair to expect from an early book. None of the issues are ones that I feel couldn’t have been polished out with another editorial pass, but even though they were distracting, none of them hampered me from getting what I wanted out of the story. I’m looking forward to jumping into book 2 very soon and seeing these characters again!