I’m really not sure how I stumbled across Rien Gray’s Fatal Fidelity books – likely someone posted something about it and it stuck randomly in my mind. I am glad that I remembered it as I was really quite intrigued with the characters, the writing and the plots. It just goes to show that you don’t know what’s out there unless you start looking outside your normal reading parameters.
These books are published through Ninestar Press – a smaller publisher that has been impressing me quite a bit over the last year or so. They publish LGBTQ+ novels that have a bit of an edge to them – they can be diverse, quirky, dark and quite often quite steamy (okay, just about everyone book I’ve read from Ninestar is pretty heavy on the sex and usually has a bit of kink) but they are always distinct and original. They also have some of the most gorgeous covers out there.
Gray’s books are an homage to the noir and hardboiled genres. There’s moral ambiguity to the characters and their actions that Gray pulls off without making the characters irredeemably flawed or the story nihilistic. The result is a simmering story of vengeance and passion with a contract killer and the woman who hires them to kill her husband that sucks you right in.
Campbell is a sophisticated and urbane character – sharply dressed, charming and confident – but there’s also an underlying danger lingering in every word and action. Methodical and organized, they research and plan out the smallest detail to create the perfect murder with cold and precise calculation and total confidence in their ability. Beneath the self-assurance and polite veneer, there’s a vulnerability of guilt and rage that they keep tightly leashed which broadens the character and enhances the air of mystery around the motivations and allows Justine to glimpse behind the implacable wall of professionalism.
Justine is a successful art gallery owner who sacrificed a career as an artist to support her husband while he pursued his education. She has become little more than a trophy wife that Richard treats with disdain through infidelity and isolating her from friends and family. Over their marriage, he has insidiously undermined Justine’s confidence and self-assurance through years of psychological, emotional and physical abuse. Despite his efforts she retains a steel core of self that survives his campaign and she finally decides to end things. But Justine wants more than escape through a divorce, she wants vengeance. Once the decision is made, she’s resolved to see it through. That steely core is further stoked through her interactions with Campbell, with her confidence returning and allowing her to acknowledge her own wants and desires.
Murder for hire may seem tawdry, but the characters are sharp and complex, with the narrative and dialogue full of innuendo and charisma that tantalizes. There’s a sizzling energy between the characters from the outset and that chemistry boils over pretty quickly. I found myself completely invested in the two characters and eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.
Love Kills Twice – Rien Gray
The first book is a novella, but it gives enough time and space to introduce the characters and has a nice neat plot to keep things moving along. Though it is short, the pacing is perfect – there’s just enough to hook the reader without bloating the story with angst or unnecessary exposition.
The story starts with a civilized dinner at a nice restaurant where Justine meets Campbell to finalize the contract and details around her husband’s imminent demise (at Campbell’s hands and Justine’s behest). From there the die is cast, and the two are drawn inexorably closer by a simmering attraction that provides more than enough steamy fodder for the reader.
There’s a dark undertone with a murder plot bringing the characters together, but that’s what makes noir noir – and when you mix moral ambiguity, implied violence and sex, you get a pretty explosive result.
Love Bleeds Deep – Rien Gray
Love Bleeds Deep is a full length novel and picks up right after Love Kills Twice with Justine and Campbell travelling to France. It’s an opportunity for the two to be together without suspicion or legal attention and where Campbell has a new target. Campbell is hired by a diplomat to kill a sadistic ex whose obsession is spiraling out of control. There’s more intrigue and violence in this book as the target is a particularly cunning bastard whose special ops training makes him much more difficult to kill.
With a longer format, there’s more time to peel back the layers of the characters, providing more insight and further cementing the connection between the two – emotionally and physically. With the introduction of a few more secondary characters, we see the loyalty, concern and respect that Campbell engenders in those around them. With this, Campbell’s past coalesces a bit more and there’s a clearer picture of the darkness that they keep firmly under control and makes them even more fascinating. Justine’s confidence continues to grow and to acknowledge some of her darker desires. That steely resolve that had been hidden so deep grows as she steps out from the shadow of her marriage and embraces Campbell and their darkness.