The neglect Niall Hamarsson suffered as a child shaped the man he has become. He is painfully aloof and loath to develop meaningful relationships and that’s due in part to his inability to trust people to stick around and in part to his own feelings of unworthiness. As a cop in Seattle, this emotional distance has helped him become an excellent homicide cop. Recently, however, Niall had a growing disillusionment with a system that cannot keep dangerous people off the streets no matter how guilty Niall knows they are. Instead of suffering the crushing feeling of defeat, Niall calls it quits and escapes to the one place he ever felt at ease: the cabin that his grandparents bequeathed to him.
By far, life in San Francisco offered a gay man like Mat Dempsey a wider range of socializing options than the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state. However, with his other siblings being established with their own families in other states and his mother unwilling to relocate, Mat decided to move back home when his father passed away ten years ago. Being back in the closet was not too bad—there was little temptation on a small island with few year-round residents. And it didn’t hurt that he was elected Sheriff, ensuring that one of the local residents didn’t end up abusing the office to settle a long-running feud with another of the locals. But when Niall Hamarsson returns to the island, everything gets upended—from Mat’s resigned acceptance of the closet to the crime rate.
In fact, Niall’s return seems to set off a string of bizarre crime, ranging from hidden agendas, to dead livestock, to murder. Mat’s time in San Francisco has given him the skills to handle a murder case, but his deputies are inexpereineced. Mat’s pride takes a hit when Niall recognizes this and offers help…and it certainly doesn’t help that Mat’s discovers he is very attracted to the competent, if taciturn, man. But whatever may or may not develop between them is overshadowed by the murder of a local island girl, a crime that proves to have connections to Niall and Mat that neither man could have guessed…and that put their lives in danger if they don’t find the murderer quickly.
For readers who love a slow burn or stories about cops solving murder mystery cases, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Elle Keaton’s world on Piedras Island (which seems to be a made up island in the very real San Juan Islands archipelago) rang true as someone who grew up in a town with a similar dichotomy of “summer people” and “locals” who lived there year round. The small-town feel materializes in a few ways. First, there is a feud between two families that have long lived on the island, both of which have a connection to the murder victim. Second, Mat’s knowledge about the residents and his treatment of them reflect small-town values. For example, instead of arresting a local man who is barred from handling firearms on account of a domestic violence charge, Mat reminds him of that very fact when the local man takes up a gun to help a neighbor hunt down a wolf. I appreciated that the background characters didn’t feel as though they were merely decoration, only popping up when it was convenient for the plot.
As far as our two main characters go, I was very much drawn to the mysterious Niall. While it’s reasonably clear what trauma he endured, neither the reader or Niall know why it happened. Its effects are far reaching, though. It’s very clear to the reader that Niall suffers from poor interpersonal skills. He has a boyfriend that he is not very attached to and despite a very slow burn between him and Mat later on, I still never felt like Niall was wholly accepting of the idea that he was worthy of another person’s love and affection. This is reflected not only in the way he dismisses and tries to deny an attraction to Mat, but also in the way he struggles to accept any form of kindness—be it from the local doctor who stitches up Niall’s hand after a carpentry accident or Mat’s mother who offers him a place to stay when Niall can no longer stay at his grandparents’ old place.
For me, there was a bit of confusion regarding the history between Mat and Niall. The two shared some years at school together and it’s clear that Niall was bullied as a kid. What’s less clear is why Mat feels responsible for that bullying. The tone of the narration left me wondering if maybe Mat and Niall had been somehow involved as youths and Mat either rejected Niall or actively bullied him. Eventually, we come to learn Mat’s guilt is more vicarious than a direct result of his own intentional decision to be unkind, but still, the set-up felt a little bit leading. That bit aside, I rather enjoyed watching Mat warm up to Niall and given how taciturn Niall is, I wondered if perhaps this would be an unrequited love on Mat’s part. What starts as random encounters between the Sheriff and Niall turn into longer days of working together on the murder case (or at least running around the island piecing clues together). By the end of the book, I knew without a doubt that Mat was falling for Niall. The reverse is less obvious, though there is at least one tantalizing mental comment from Niall about having at least a physical relationship with Mat. Ultimately, the book winds down with the kind of Happy for Now that doesn’t erase the strong, silent (and still a little self-loathing) man Niall is while still giving Mat hope for a future together.
Overall, this is an excellent murder mystery with an extremely slow-burn romance set in contemporary Washington state. If you like stories featuring cops, the strong-silent type, (emotionally) damaged men, dogs, or murder mysteries, then I highly recommend this book.