Title & buy link: Dirty Secret
Author: Rhys Ford
Cover Artist: Reece Notley
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Amazon Buy Link: Dirty Secret
Genre: M/M contemporary
Length: Novel (234 pages)
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
A strong emotional journey kept me reading but the mystery plot faltered somewhat.
Loving Kim Jae-Min isn’t always easy: Jae is gun-shy about being openly homosexual. Ex-cop turned private investigator Cole McGinnis doesn’t know any other way to be. Still, he understands where Jae is coming from. Traditional Korean men aren’t gay—at least not usually where people can see them.
But Cole can’t spend too much time unraveling his boyfriend’s issues. He has a job to do. When a singer named Scarlet asks him to help find Park Dae-Hoon, a gay Korean man who disappeared nearly two decades ago, Cole finds himself submerged in the tangled world of rich Korean families, where obligation and politics mean sacrificing happiness to preserve corporate empires. Soon the bodies start piling up without rhyme or reason. With every step Cole takes toward locating Park Dae-Hoon, another person meets their demise—and someone Cole loves could be next on the murderer’s list.
Cole McGinnis—half Irish, half Japanese, ex-cop and now wise-ass private investigator—is back on the job after the events of Dirty Kiss (reviewed here). This time his friend Scarlet, the beautiful transvestite singer, asks Cole to help track down her friend Dae-Hoon, who went missing in 1994.
Scarlet’s powerful and influential lover, Min-Ho, is uncle to Shin-Cho and David. Shin-Cho was expelled from his military service in South Korea when he was caught with another man. David is straight and about to be married to a girl, Helena, from another of Korea’s top families. One of the complications is that Helena’s father Sang-Min had an affair with Dae-Hoon just before he went missing.
Scarlet suspects that Sang-Min killed Dae-Hoon. In a culture where family and face is everything and a gay man is either ‘corrected’ into ‘becoming straight’ or risks losing his place within the family and being cast out of the community, Dae-Hoon had started divorce proceedings so he could live openly as a gay man. Scarlet believes that Dae-Hoon may have pressured Sang-Min, who had no intention of leaving his wife, and so Sang-Min used his influence to make Dae-Hoon disappear during a police raid on a gay bath house. In 1994, racial tensions were running high in Los Angeles and it was easy to get rid of someone unwanted.
Cole has some insight into dealing with the closed ranks of the Korean community thanks to his previous case, which led to him meeting his lover Jae-Min. Their relationship is moving ahead, though with some difficulty. Cole is still not fully over his previous partner’s death, and Jae struggles with accepting his homosexuality. To make things worse, Cole’s homophobic father and stepmother are in town to visit Cole’s brother Mike, and though Cole wants to see his estranged parents for the sake of the young half-sisters he’s never met, he’s also afraid that his father will once again reject him.
The case proves to be complicated. Cole was expecting secrets to come to light as he and his best friend Bobby, also an ex-cop, dig around into Dae-Hoon’s past, but what they find are secrets buried within secrets… and none of it is pretty.
Meanwhile, people are getting killed—starting with David’s fiancée, Helena, at their rehearsal dinner. With the body count on the rise and the Korean families closing ranks, Cole wonders if he’ll be able to uncover the truth before the murderer takes aim at him…
I absolutely loved the first book in this series and was looking forwards to reading this sequel. Unfortunately, while aspects of the book were very strong and drew me in, I didn’t like the mystery plot so much.
I have to admit my head was spinning when the set-up of the case was laid out. Although I can appreciate that dealing with a subject involving relationships between powerful families within a culture that has a rigid hierarchy and very specific social beliefs requires a lot of explanation, the complexities of it got to a point where I started to lose interest. I say this as someone who’s been heavily into kpop and kdrama over the last year, so to a certain extent I know a little about Korean culture, but even so, I was a bit lost at times with this.
I think the problem for me was that there were too many characters to support the plot. Though the mystery unfolded at a good pace and was for the most part coherent, thanks to the author’s impeccable writing, I wasn’t as engaged with this book as I was with Dirty Kiss.
That said, I loved seeing the recurring characters again. I really liked Scarlet in the first book and was delighted to see her again here, along with Bobby, who is just awesome, and Cole’s no-nonsense secretary, Claudia.
The strongest part of the book for me was the emotional arc. To a certain degree, Cole is in denial about his feelings towards his father and stepmother. He’s cut himself off from them to avoid the pain of their rejection, but because he has a close relationship with his brother and sister-in-law, Mike and Maddy, and because he wants to be a part of his half-sisters’ lives, Cole agrees to see his parents again when they’re in town.
In the meantime he can see Jae’s constant pain as his lover struggles to accept his own nature. Jae is afraid of allowing himself to fall in love with Cole; he’s constantly afraid of being exposed as gay and shunned by his family (indeed, when Jae’s mother finds out that he’s with Cole, she attempts to blackmail her own son). At the start of the book Cole sympathises with Jae but says he can’t truly understand what Jae is going through because of the cultural differences—but when Cole has to face his father’s disgust and his stepmother’s cruel comments, he realises that he and Jae really do share the same experience.
The motif of a parent rejecting a child for their sexuality is a recurring theme throughout the book and was well done. I particularly liked Claudia’s tale of rejection.
What didn’t work so well was the denouement of the plot. When the murderer’s identity was revealed, I actually said “What the ****!” at my screen. While it was great in a way that I hadn’t managed to guess who the murderer was, this was so out of left field that I’d actually forgotten the existence of that character. Also, I dislike deus ex machina explanatory tropes in detective fiction so this one left me disappointed.
Overall, Dirty Secret is a good book. Rhys Ford is a very strong author and writes beautifully. She creates characters that you care about and I adore Cole’s first person narration and sense of humour. It’s just that the plot didn’t work for me this time around.