Another birthday has come around for Eli and his friend and neighbor, Shannon, has volunteered him for a night at the bar with a couple of friends. Eli would rather celebrate with a binge session on the sofa with his best friend, a Stafforshire terrier named Zeus. When an attractive looking man dressed as a police officer walks through the door, Eli is both dreading and hoping Shannon has hired a stripper in uniform. Shannon quickly informs Eli the man is not a stripper, but that doesn’t stop her from orchestrating an opportunity for Eli to talk to the officer. It doesn’t take long for the two to get to chatting and, for the first time in months, Eli feels a spark of interest for a man that could extend beyond a single night. Yet, he is also very conscious of just how very different he is from the officer, Dominic. Eli’s just turned twenty-five, works as a waiter, and volunteers much of his time at a struggling animal rescue. Not to mention how, at some five feet seven inches with “emo” hair, a lip piercing, and a slender build, he’s quite physically different from the model-like Dominic.
Admittedly, Dominic makes some assumptions about Eli based on his appearance. But as the two talk over a couple of beers, Dominic discovers a man who is fiercely dedicated to his volunteering and aspires to start his own rescue some day. Dominic finds himself drawn to the younger man and, not wishing the night to end too soon, offers to walk Eli home when they discover how close they live to one another. He expected to send Eli off with a kiss and a promise of another meeting, but when the motion-activated lights outside Eli’s apartment flash on, the two men discover a hateful slur spray painted across Eli’s building.
Dominic immediately shifts into cop mode and soon Eli begins to wonder how much of their interactions are because Dominic is personally interested in him and how much Dominic is professionally obligated to have an interest in the victim of a hate crime. Eli continues to have conflicting feelings when Dominic points out that Eli’s predictable schedule could make him an easier target. On the other hand, Dominic seems to prove he’s genuinely interested by showing up at the animal rescue where Eli volunteers, just because Eli would be there. The warm feelings Eli experiences every time he sees Dominic convince Eli give them a chance. And it turns out, being romantically involved with a police officer is a very good thing because soon, Eli is the target for a string of increasingly violent crimes that leave both him and Dominic fearing Eli has a stalker…one who will apparently stop at nothing to get to Eli.
Mad About the Boy was an immensely enjoyable book. One thing I am most intrigued by is Laycock’s choice of what I suppose is character design. Eli himself says his look is “more emo than boy next door” with blue streaks in his bangs and a lip ring. This felt like something of a juxtaposition for a character who enjoys his work as a waiter in a little cafe in Manchester, England, volunteers at a nearby animal rescue, and dreams about having a dog rescue of his own some day. Not only was this a chance for me to call out my own assumptions about someone’s grooming, but it comes up in the plot as well. In contrast to Eli’s gig-economy work and the freedom he has over his appearance, Dominic has a steady job with the police and definitely seemed like a clean-cut, heartthrob-in-a-romance novel type of guy: attractive, well-to-do, and kind to a fault. At times, Eli is hyper aware of the physical manifestations of their differences, commenting about how he doesn’t know what someone like Dominic would see in a guy like Eli beyond a one night stand. Later, after they’ve begun seeing one another, Eli again feels self conscious when he realizes Dominic’s family is both huge and well-to-do…quite different from Eli, who was raised by a single mother on the “wrong side” of the tracks.
I was also mostly satisfied with how the relationship between Dominic and Eli develops. While Eli and Dominic clearly have some chemistry when the first meet, the fact that their walk home after that same first meeting ends with them discovering vandalism at Eli’s place clearly leaves Eli unsure about Dominic’s intentions. Considering Eli’s own awareness of how different he is from Dominic in terms of appearance and apparent social class, and Eli’s only too willing to convince himself Dominic’s sudden appearances after that first night are just proof Dominic is a good cop—and not interested in Eli. For me as a reader, however, I thought Dominic was rather tactile pretty much from the get-go, so I was sure Dominic was being a vigilant cop AND showing Eli he cared. In fact, I found the number of times Eli sought and found comfort in Dominic’s arms (as in literally being held) sweet…and rather indicative that whatever doubts Eli may have, Dominic sure has potential as Mr. Right. The only “negative” was that sometimes, Dominic feels a bit…too Mr. Right. I didn’t get the sense that they moved too fast or anything, just that Dominic seems to always say/do exactly what Eli wants/needs. To me, this made an interesting juxtaposition between the two main characters.
While there are several threads that shoot through the romance, the suspense plot about someone stalking/targeting Eli is the most exciting. Laycock helps build up the suspense by including a handful of chapters from the POV of Eli’s admirer/attacker, while also keeping their exact identity a secret. This sort of veiled narrative meant I got suckered into a red herring about who was targeting Eli. What starts as graffiti on his building soon escalates into arson and the murdering of dogs where Eli works (author does include trigger warnings in the frontmatter, too). This thread culminates with a confrontation that involves the attacker, Eli, Dominic, and Eli’s dog, Zeus. The climactic scenes pull at the heart strings while still maintaining a big old HEA. To balance out the drama of all this, there’s a side thread about Eli’s work at the dog rescue that helps make Eli a more rounded character in my eyes. Similarly, there’s a scene where Eli joins Dominic for dinner at Dominic’s family’s home and we get a snippet of Dominic’s family life.
All in all, this was a delightful combination of get-together story and suspense. If you like stories with pets or books that feature some police work (not too heavy on the details, but the fact that Dominic is a police officer isn’t just a descriptor for the character, his job and at least one of his colleagues contribute in meaningful ways to the story as a whole), then I think you’d enjoy this. If you’re looking for a suspenseful read featuring a sweet romance, then I can wholly recommend Mad About the Boy.