Rating: 4.25 stars
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It has been almost a year, time enough for the wounds to just begin healing. To that end, Cody Harper—aka Desdemona—has found a brief respite in a basement apartment in New York City. He reads by day and washes dishes by night. The normalcy lets him cope with losing the unrequited love of his life at the hands of a murderer last year. Until a nondescript black Mercedes finds his hidey hole, driving by a tall drink of water and bearing a man named Rodney Jessup who was in no small part responsible for the past tragedy, even if not outright guilty.
Offering Cody a quarter of a million dollars to track down old ghosts seems almost like an insult. Except the money could be useful and it has been a year. While Cody truly found a bit of peace in the normalcy of his off-the-radar life, he knows he is not destined to be a professional dishwasher for the rest of his life. He takes Rodney up on his offer. Mere hours later, he’s back in the thick of investigative work, trying to help Rodney figure out who is making Rodney and his family’s life hell. Cody is also fighting a fierce attraction for the attractive driver who turns out to be a bodyguard named Tony, hired to protect Rodney.
Things go from awkward to horrific when a killer takes out Rodney and makes noises about going after the rest of the Jessup clan. Cody teams up with Tony and together, they investigate the tangled web that ensnared and ultimately killed Rodney. But when the killer sets his sights on Cody, all bets are off.
Full disclosure: I did not re-read the first installment in this series, The Combat Zone, or even bother re-reading my review of it. Part of me trusts an author of a sequel will throw some bones to the audience so they remember what happened. I certainly can’t fault Wilde there; the entire story is peppered with little mentions of things that happened in the first book. The way the unrequited love arc concluded in book one was absolutely deliciously heartbreaking and I think it’s pulled out in the sequel sparingly and thus to excellent effect. I had just enough reminders to vaguely recall what was what—mostly. I think this story stands strongly enough as a stand alone, BUT I think it would make more sense and the reader could guess at why/how Rodney’s in trouble if they’ve just finished the first installment.
That said, I found it odd that the Cody character seems to be markedly different from the first book. Again, this is all based off my vague recollection of what went on in book one and my impression of the main character and narrator, Cody. Still, the fact that he’s apparently an accomplished drag queen felt sort of non sequitur in book one, but in book two, Cody feels much more in tune with gay culture in general. While I think the characterization in An Absent God feels more…label friendly, I guess (the guy sings show tunes in one scene to keep wild animals away as he tromps through some woods), it feels a bit less like the rough tough from the prequel. Despite that, he is still portrayed as a pretty awesome character. He retains his ability to connect dots, guided by his gut. He is still a man of action, but we’re not watching him constantly make unbelievably wild jumps in logic.
And, of course, there’s the whole Tony/Cody dynamic. I was actually surprised to get introduced to Tony and see him stick around. At first, I was expecting him to be a bad guy, but as Cody begins to actually start falling for the guy, I started expecting one or the other to split. There’s plenty about each character that keeps them at odds. Cody grew up on the streets and has no love for cops, whereas Tony is not only ex-military, but also a former cop. The scenes where they discuss their different views on police work were brief, but helped make them more real instead of this instant, blinding attraction. Well, Cody is sort of instantly blindly attracted, but Tony is more cautious in getting to know another man, so that builds some delicious sexual tension.
The side characters build a lot of the plot, as well. I like that everything is not entirely up to the leads. Primarily, we have Jessup’s family, a wife and two kids; Cody’s boss at the restaurant where he washes dishes; Cody’s friend and fellow drag queen Ophelia Cox/Martin; and Tony’s sister, Abby. The kids actually figure into the story very prominently as they are the target of the bad guys (who want the kids for ransom money, presumably), yet they actually do very little on-page. I liked this portrayal of kids, they’re a part of the story without taking over the story. Cody’s boss and Tony’s sister are just bit parts, but I like how they round out a cast of characters with a bad-ass type of female character and a non-jerk boss. Ophelia appears probably the least of all of them and is almost purely to let the reader get to know Cody outside his identity as a quasi private investigator, and it’s pretty touching (I guess Ophelia’s “real” function is to serve as a sort of safe house for the kids when the kidnapper gets to close, but that wasn’t the first thing that popped into my mind as I write this review).
Overall, this was an exciting read. It didn’t feel as frenetic and hectic as the first book. I keep watching the page numbers climb but there were no huge ZOMG developments, just a slow and gently building tension about how close the bad guys are and exactly who they are. The most heart-pounding thing happens early on when Rodney gets killed, but apart from that, it’s pretty low-key tension. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a non-cop type action “hero” who’s not afraid to use his drag skills to get the clues to solve a crime.