Review – The Salisbury Key – Harper Fox (4 Stars)
Daniel Logan is on a lonely quest to find out what drove his lover, a wealthy, respected archaeologist, to take his own life. The answer—the elusive “key” for which Jason was desperately searching—lies somewhere on a dangerous and deadly section of Salisbury Plain.
The only way to gain access, though, is to allow an army explosives expert to help him navigate the bomb-riddled military zone. A man he met once more than three years ago, who is even more serious and enigmatic than before.
Lieutenant Rayne has better things to do than risk his life protecting a scientist on an apparent suicide mission. Like get back to Iraq and prove he will never again miss another roadside bomb. Yet as he helps Dan uncover the truth, an attraction neither man is in the mood for springs up against their will. And stirs up the nervous attention of powerfully placed people—military and academic alike.
First in conflict, then in passion, Rayne and Dan are drawn together in a relationship as rocky and complicated as the ancient land they search. Where every step leads them closer to a terrible legacy written in death…
Harper Fox is one of my “autobuys”—a writer I can depend on for interesting characters and atmospheric settings. In many ways, she reminds me of Mary Stewart, in the days when she wrote some of the most complex and romantic suspense thrillers. (Nowadays Stewart is primarily known for her Merlin and Arthur series, starting with The Crystal Cave, books that if they didn’t jump start the whole recent Arthurian romance trend, certainly contributed to it. I liked The Crystal Cave, a lot, but I loved her earlier suspense thrillers.) Fox has the same knack for making the setting part of the story, and The Salisbury Key is no exception. The great plain near Stonehenge is as much a character as Jason, Daniel or Rayne. Fox’s descriptions are lush and beautiful, and like the best of the old romantic thrillers, the suspense builds slowly but steadily after the trauma of Jason’s suicide.
The story is told in first person by Daniel, a young archeologist, as he first pursues, wins, and then grieves for his much-older mentor Jason. Daniel is an interesting and likeable character, a little wild and hedonistic. Jason is… frankly, a prick. Daniel’s near-adoration of the man informs the whole first part of the book; he not only is in love with the man, he is impressed with Jason’s status, his intellect, his achievements, and seems willing to let Jason lead him around by the nose. You get the impression that it’s less love than it is hero-worship; when Daniel quite naturally is attracted to younger men, he feels an enormous sense of guilt, even though he never acts on any attraction.
When Jason dies, Daniel blames himself, and Jason’s equally irritating friends encourage that thinking. The scenes of Daniel dealing with the fallout from Jason’s suicide are emotionally shattering, and while I felt that the beginning of the book, which was essentially a flashback to their first “date,” moved a bit slowly and was a little long for the purpose, it made Daniel’s reaction to his lover’s death all the more believable. He is not only grieving—he is destroyed. And he has no clue as to why Jason would have abandoned him like that, for no reason Daniel could see. The guilt and confusion Daniel feels is stark and painful, and completely believable.
But I think that led to one of the problems I had with this book; Daniel is so devastated, first by Jason’s death, and later by Jason’s secret betrayals, that I found it difficult to believe in his sudden relationship with Rayne. For his part, Rayne is a hard personality to get a grip on: he’s doing some grieving of his own, is firmly in the closet, and doesn’t have much patience with intellectual types like Daniel. Given the facets of his character and backstory as they are gradually revealed, I could see them building a relationship over time, but things happen too quickly on a physical level for it to work well. Daniel is grieving; Rayne is fighting his attraction to Daniel, as well as dealing with his own issues.
To be fair, modern conventions of romance, particularly m/m romance, demand a certain amount of sex fairly early in the story, but this is one instance where I can see that the old-fashioned suspense stories of Stewart and her ilk had an advantage—the tension of the unfolding story was paralleled with slowly building sexual tension. While I like well-written sex scenes as much as anyone, and Fox does write them very well, I think a slower buildup of romance, coupled with the revelations about Rayne, would have made the relationship between them more believable.
There is also a twist involving Jason’s previous career that briefly popped me out of the story. While it’s not unusual for scientists of whatever type to have a second specialty, it’s usually more like an archeologist/historian pairing, or an anthropologist/biologist pairing—something where the two careers complement each other. Having two distinctly different careers—and being notoriously successful at both—sort of stretched the believability for a moment, and was one of the few jarring elements of the story for me.
But those two issues aside, the steadily thickening plot draws the reader into the mystery with a steady hand. The suspense builds nicely, spiraling tighter and tighter; mysteries are uncovered, villains are revealed (I was quite happy with the villains; while one is sort of telegraphed, the other is completely unexpected, but logical, and dovetails nicely with the character’s earlier behavior), and in the end, the horrible secrets are discovered and the world saved—literally. Few writers can stretch the bounds of plausibility and still build to such a satisfying denouement. Harper Fox is one of them. 4 of 5 stars.
Buy The Salisbury Key at Samhain, here.