Rating: 2.5 to 4.5 stars
Moonlight Cove Detective Zack Stewart and his partner Claire Keaton get the call for a murder at a downtown gay nightclub Inferno. When they arrive they find a young gay man strangled in the alley in back of the club. The victim reeked of recent sex and was strangled with his own underwear. Inside Inferno Zack and his partner find plenty of people who knew the victim, had had sex with him including the club owner, Dante Jardin, their chief suspect.
Zack Stewart is in the closet at work but Dante Jardin ticks all his buttons and then some. From the beauty mark on his face to the unusual color of his eyes, Dante Jardin is Zack Stewart’s hottest dream and worst nightmare all rolled into one. Zack is convinced that Dante is the murderer but isn’t sure if that is because of the evidence or because he is fighting his own feelings towards the man. Then another murder occurs at the club, a victim killed in the same manner who also was connected to the first victim. A serial killer is on the loose and all the evidence points to Dante Jardin or does it? What happens when a detective’s increasing obsession with a murder suspect starts to cloud his judgement? As the killer strikes again, Stewart must decide which will rule out, obsession or justice.
Inferno by Scarlett Blackwell is 95 percent of a great book. Here is a recommendation I have never made before. Stop reading about 10 pages before the ending. Just put the thing down. Make up your own ending, or don’t. As long as you don’t finish the book you will have a terrific portrait of a man self destructing over a sexual obsession, the downward spiral of his intellectual and emotional life, and the catastrophic consequences that occur. From our first introduction to Zack Stewart, we get a feeling of a man already in trouble emotionally and physcially. Zack is exhausted by the hours of his job, worn out and lonely due to his closeted state. He is not sleeping or eating well. Then he is called out onto a case that will have ramifications on his job, his friendship with his partner and most important his self image. The catalyst for his upheaval is Dante Jardin, owner of the notorious gay club Inferno.
Dante Jardin has the face of an angel and the body and attitude of the devil himself. All sexual heat and emotional ice locked together in a package that pulls all of Zack’s strings so tight they vibrate. His attitude towards the “dead whore” offends Zack and his partner while Dante’s sexuality turns Zack on to the point of physical arousal while questioning him. From that moment on, Zack finds himself growing increasingly obsessed over the club owner. He masturbates with Dante in his thoughts even in the squad car. Zack starts returning daily to the club because he can’t stay away from the man even as he insults him, committing borderline harassment and assault while shoving Dante against the wall. Zack tries fighting his emotions, aware that he is falling into a trap that he might not be able to get out of. We are there every step of the way as Zack falls down the rabbit hole, we are there as Zack makes one bad judgement call after another, helpless to stop himself. Blackwell does an outstanding job of bringing us into the mind of a man in the throes of an obsession. We hear his thoughts as his emotions spiral out of control even as intellectually he knows it will cost him everything he has worked so work to obtain, fifteen years on the force, the respect and friendship of his partner, even his own self respect. All gone because he cannot turn away from a man he believes to be a murderer and who now owns him completely in every way.
Another amazing thing is that I didn’t even like Zack Stewart very much. He whines (and knows it). He throws his co workers under the bus, expects them to cover up his screw ups to the point of losing their own jobs, he throws an investigation and still we watch all the events happen, much like watching a train wreck. I was never emotionally invested in the character and yet I still couldn’t put the book down. Blackwell doesn’t make Dante Jardin someone you would relate to either. She gives us some backstory on Dante that should make him and his demeanor more understandable but he never really came together for me outside of their sex scenes, which were very hot by the way. And still, Blackwell keeps us turning the pages, wanting to know what will happen next. The easiest character to understand? That would be Claire Keaton, a “by the book” cop who considers Zack a friend and who instinctually realizes he is in trouble and that Dante is the key.
It all works, from the descriptions of the poor guys getting murdered to the club scene with the anonymous sex in the back room. All visually rich in detail, smokey with the smell of sex and weed, the clinking of glasses and the rustle of clothing, Blackwell’s descriptions brings us into the crime scene, into the midst of the investigation and the group of people circling around the periphery. This is a 5 star book right up until it isn’t. And that brings us to the last 15 to 10 pages. Were these written by a doppleganger? Did some nefarious ghostwriter with fluff on the brain sneak in and complete this novel of grime, death and sexual obsession with a goal of inserting a measure of Hello Kitty and rainbowed unicorns? I am still shaking my head over it. It just makes no sense at all. It takes everything, and I do mean everything, that went before and plants a big “Nuh uh!” over top of it, canceling out everything that felt gritty and real in order to throw us a fake HEA and “everything’s alright, boo boo cakes” epilogue. Am I frustrated and irritated beyond belief over this wasteful treatment of talented writing, even by the author herself? You betcha I am. Two stars for the ending, 5 stars for sexual obsession made real. You figure out the rating. I am out of here, still shaking my head in disgust.
Cover: Art by Reese Dante who had done a great job with the coloring and models to achieve the idea of sex, heat, all in flames.