Review: Dirty Games by Barbara Elsborg

Dirty-GamesRating: 4 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel


Life is complicated. Linton Williams has known this for as long as he can remember. It started with his own mother lavishing attention on him while utterly ignoring Linton’s little brother, Dirk. It continued when his father up and left them years later without so much as an explanation. It continued well into adulthood as Linton has tried to steer Dirk away from the bohemian, drug-addled lifestyle he’s fallen into. Most recently, a rare and serious romance crumbled to dust when it turned out his bisexual man was secretly carrying on an entirely separate relationship with a woman in Paris, complete with baby.

Linton’s work-a-day life as an architect is thrown into upheaval when Dirk’s drug habit finally catches up with him and brings trouble straight to Linton’s door. Desperate to help his brother, Linton is forced to make some excruciatingly hard choices. Except it’s not enough to simply pay off his brother’s drug debt; Linton knows Dirk needs real help or the cycle will only continue. The thing is, the kind of help Dirk needs comes with a price tag too expensive for Linton to dream of being able to afford.

Help comes from the most unlikely of places: his boss, Max, and his boss’ brother, Owen—with whom Linton has had a long-time association as school mates.

Months ago, Owen had been engaged to one Thorne Morrisey, a rising film star who happens to also be bisexual. Max’s firm was set to design Thorne’s dream home. Yet Thorne broke off the engagement and the house designs in spectacularly cruel fashion. Both brothers are out for revenge—Owen for his broken heart and Max for his professional pride. Knowing how Linton was just betrayed by a bisexual lover and his long-time aversion to the sentiment most call “love,” Owen and Max think Linton is the perfect man to seduce Thorne and then publicly and humiliatingly dump him.

When Max and Owen explain the deal, Linton is stunned. He may not be a saint, but he could never knowingly seduce a man only for the purposes of betraying that trust. What’s more, he’s sure Max and Owen’s motives are far more petty than pure. But when the brothers dangle enough money for Linton to get Dirk the help he needs, Linton reluctantly agrees.

It doesn’t take long for Linton and Thorne’s circles to meet. Much to their mutual surprise, the man who disavows love is drawn to the man too paranoid to give someone a chance and vice versa. A comfortable romance unfolds between them, much to Owen and Max’s delight. Linton hates carrying on the deception and tries to figure out a way out from between the rock and the hard place, yet his every effort is rebuffed. Part of it is the immense pressure Max, as Linton’s boss, applies. Part of it is the old drug connection from Dirk, which threatens Linton’s very life. Part of it simply Linton knowing that by the time Thorne learns the truth, he’ll either be betrayed and dump Linton or he’ll be heartbroken and betrayed and dump Linton.

Elsborg incorporates an amazing number of elements and does a respectable job weaving them into one story that does not overwhelm the reader. Just a few of Elsborg’s story elements include: Linton’s illicit affair with his coworker and that coworker’s continued pursuit of Linton, Linton being able to connect with Thorne’s brother River almost effortlessly, the drug dealers shifting their focus from Dirk to Linton and how that thread plays out with the police, Thorne’s celebrity, Dirk and Linton’s birth father…Of course, all of these are to bolster or hinder the main thread: the relationship that grows between Linton and Thorne.

Even as all these events unfold on page, I rarely felt like I had to work to suspend my disbelief. I enjoyed the ebb and flow between these story elements because it never felt forced to me. Take the way Dirk’s drug habit ends up getting Linton in a few tight spots. I liked how Elsborg doesn’t just resolve this side story by having Linton cough up the drug money Dirk owes and call it done. These drug thugs are peppered throughout the action. Why? Because although Linton is willing to pay them and wash his hands of the whole thing, it was Thorne who found Dirk after Dirk had been jumped by the drug thugs. Thorne didn’t know who Dirk was and was just being a good Samaritan by alerting the police…but the thugs think it was Linton who ratted them out, keeping that thread alive until the very end.

Of course, the piece de resistance is the whole betrayal thread. Except this defies expectations because, from the get-go, we know Linton is turning himself inside out trying to figure out how he can avoid having to betray Thorne. Even better? Linton’s not trying to avoid back-stabbing Thorne AFTER he’s gotten to know the man, Linton just thinks it’s a needlessly cruel thing to do. A little more predictably, however, is that Linton never finds the “right” time to tell Thorne and of course, Thorne finds out about Linton’s motives. There is a lot of delicious angst that plays out after this as well. I could have done with a little more heart-felt talking it out, but I think even without a lengthy heart-to-heart the characters manage to put all the pieces together and come to the right conclusions before it’s too late.

I also need to give a quick shout out to the relationship that develops between Thorne and Linton. With all the other characters’ dramas touching and impacting their lives, Elsborg still devotes a few key chunks of the book to showcasing what Linton and Thorne are like as a couple. Their chemistry may start of a pure, primal physical attraction, but during a great scene when they go camping, the reader is treated to the kind of teasing banter and emotional closeness that I found very satisfying. And, for whatever it’s worth, I thought the tone of dialogue between these two at this point felt distinctly male.

One of my two only real complaints is how much overlapping in what I might call “character design” there seems to be. Both of our principle characters (Linton and Thorne) have brothers who face significant challenges (respectively: Dirk, drug addict; River, autistic) and so do a couple of side characters (Max, Linton’s boss; Josh; Thorne’s best friend) who also have brothers who present challenges.

The other complaint is the recycling of the rape element. All I say about this is that I was surprised at how many of our cast of characters suffered this monstrous treatment (two were off page and years in the characters’ pasts, one was on-page when a character is non-consensually given a chemsex drug and then raped).

Overall, this was an immensely enjoyable read. There was plenty of suspense and not just from the when-will-the-shoe-drop aspect of Linton/Thorne’s relationship, but the ramifications of Linton going along with Max and Owen’s schemes and Dirk’s safety. If you’re looking for a dense, yet easy to follow drama formed around a basic theme of betrayal, I think you’ll enjoy this story very much.

camille sig

Comments

  1. Wow, this does sound intriguing! Thanks for the review, Camille.

    • There’s just the right mix of over-the-top and waiting-for-the-shoe-to-drop, I think. Some people on amazon thought there was too much going on, but I disagree! Even though there’s twist after twist, each element has a concrete connection to the main players, so it’s not just drama for drama’s sake…it’s a ramification from an earlier action. If you pick it up, I hope you enjoy it!

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