Rating: 4.75 stars
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Dirty Secret reunites us with private investigator Cole McGinnis and his boyfriend Kim Jae-Min. We first met the pair in Ford’s excellent Dirty Kiss and this book picks up fairly soon after the events in the first story. Cole is still feeling the lingering effects of being shot, but is mostly recovered physically. He and Jae have settled into a closer relationship, but things are still tentative for the men in several ways as there is a lot of baggage for both them. Cole is still dealing with the emotional fallout of the death of his lover at the hands of Cole’s former police partner. The lack of clarity behind Ben’s murder/suicide, as well as Rick’s death, still weigh heavily on him. And things continue to be complicated for Jae with his traditional Korean family. The men know without a doubt that Jae’s family will reject him if they ever find out that he is gay. And family is a huge part of Jae’s life and culture. So although he and Cole have clearly grown close, there is a lot of uncertainty about their relationship and how far things can go.
Along with this, Cole takes on another case set in the close-knit Korean community. Park Shin-Cho asks Cole to track down his father, Park Dae-Hoon, who has been missing for almost twenty years. The man was last seen at a Korean bath house right before a police raid and has not been heard from since. Because Dae-Hoon had recently come out to his family as gay, no one made much effort to locate him after he disappeared. Shin-Cho has just learned that his father was gay and, after being recently kicked out of the Korean military due to his own fling with another man, now is determined to find out what happened to his father. Things are further complicated by the fact that Shin-Cho’s brother is now marrying the daughter of his father’s former lover. And that all the families involved are part of the chaebol, the high ranking group of Korean families, many of whom are intermarried, work together, or are otherwise connected. As Cole digs deeper into the case, he faces murders, blackmail, and lots of secrets. As the dangers hit close to home, Cole must work to uncover who is behind the threats before more lives are threatened.
In Dirty Secret, Ford gives us a really exciting mystery that kept me guessing until the very end. As we learn more about the key players, more secrets are uncovered and more connections between them are revealed. These families are all interrelated due to their high social status, complicating their relationships and their dealings with one another. They are used to putting on a public face and so many secrets lay buried underneath. The mystery plot is exciting and fast-paced and takes many twists and turns along the way. Even at the end I found myself being surprised by developments that I didn’t see coming and I think Ford does a great job creating an interesting case and a host of fascinating characters.
At its heart though, Dirty Secret is the story of the developing relationship between Cole and Jae and here it really shines. We can see that the men have deepened their connection, even since we have last seen them. There is a bit more ease to their relationship and a comfort in one another. We can see that Jae is able to show more affection and accept the growing closeness with Cole, even as it scares him. Yet Jae is still nowhere near ready to come out to his family, and Cole still has fears that one day it will be all be too much for Jae and things will fall apart between them. The parallels between Shin-Cho’s family’s reactions to his homosexuality and Jae’s own situation just serve to further emphasize what Jae would face if he comes out. And even Cole, who has been out for years, still faces lingering hostility from his own parents. So even though it is clear that the men care deeply for one another and have a bond that is only growing stronger, things are not settled between them yet and their future is uncertain. And I appreciate that Ford doesn’t push things too fast with them. With all their baggage, a sudden happy ending would feel unrealistic. So I like that we are seeing them grow closer but they are still working through their issues.
That doesn’t stop these men from being super hot together though. Although there is not a ton of sex in this story, the scenes between them are full of such heat and intensity. Neither man is comfortable really expressing his feelings for the other verbally. Cole knows moving too fast will scare Jae off, so although it is clear he wants Jae to be a major part of his life, he keeps his feelings close. And Jae is so scared of how things will play out and what will happen if his family learns the truth that he is not ready to hear declarations of love and talk of the future. But when they are together physically, the love between them is so clear. This is how they express their feelings for one another and it is clear watching them how much they mean to each other.
Once again Ford gives us wonderful exposure to the Korean culture, both through Cole and Jae’s daily interactions as well as their larger circle of friends and the host of characters introduced in the mystery. The culture shock is not quite as strong for Cole here as it was early on in their relationship, but he is still learning his way through the customs and traditions of Korean culture. I love the way Ford integrates food, language, and other traditions so well into the story. My only quibble, and this is largely the fault of my American brain, is that at times I had trouble keeping track of all the characters. This was primarily the case early on when we get a lot of narrative where many people are introduced that we haven’t yet met or gotten to know and I got a bit confused keeping track of them all. But as the story went on, I found I was much more able to follow along with the many characters.
In addition to all the new folks we meet, I loved catching up with some of my favorite side characters in this series. We once again see Bobby, Cole’s best friend and a former cop as well. They bicker and banter but it doesn’t hide the closeness they feel for one another. We also catch up with Cole’s brother Mike and his family and I loved the way they support Cole completely despite the way the rest of his family has abandoned him. And my favorite part was reuniting with Claudia and Scarlet. These women are like surrogate mothers to Cole and Jae, accepting them for who they are and always looking out for the men.
I will mention the story ends with a little bit of a cliff hanger. The mystery and plot of this book are well resolved so Dirty Secret is not left open ended in any way. But we do get a tease of what is to come in the next book in the series, which I am now awaiting even more anxiously. If you haven’t read the first book, I think you can follow along here just fine, but I really enjoyed Dirty Kiss and I’d definitely recommend it if you are interested in seeing the start of Cole and Jae’s relationship.
So overall I thought this was a wonderful addition to the series. It combines a great mystery with two really likable characters in a fascinating and romantic relationship. I would definitely highly recommend it.