Even though Ben Grover lives in a Kentucky backwater, the folks are generally okay with a mostly out Deputy in the Sheriff’s office. Having a a few other out gay men known about town doesn’t hurt. And there’s even a single dive bar that serves as a meeting place for locals and those from larger neighboring cities. Being gay also gives Ben something of an advantage when a series of gay men go missing. He accepts the assignment partly because there’s virtually no one else who can take the case. But he also accepts because he knows he has the best shot at bringing the missing men home.
Things get complicated when two men turn up dead, drawing the attention of the Feds. Ultimately, the case brings Agent Ross Burns back to the small town where he grew up, and back to his high school ex, Ben Grover. It doesn’t take long for the flame Ross and Ben shared in high school to flare back to life. Even as the heated glances escalate into a kiss and more, small-town Ben has a hard time envisioning a future with Federal Agent Ross. Ross skipped town about as soon as the ink dried on his high school diploma, for one thing. Knowing Ross left once and could leave again makes Ben wary of their chemistry fizzling out as after a few nights in the sack. All the old feelings have to be put on hold, however, when both of them get a calling card from the kidnapper—a single rose and an invitation to oblivion.
The Rose Man is a contemporary law enforcement romance that is part of the My Bloody Valentine collection. Dragon has set her story in a rural town in Kentucky and I think she has done a good job avoiding the biggest stereotypes, while still depicting rural culture. The biggest example of this is demonstrated in how the town generally balances its deeply religious roots with acceptance of those locals who are gay. I think Ben’s father personifies this grudging acceptance. Ben’s father and Ross often share scenes where they give each other grief, while simultaneously not taking shit from the other. The results often put Ben square in the middle, being pulled on both ends. It was an interesting dynamic that gets explored quite often on-page, but still seems ripe with potential for further developing Ross’ character beyond how he tried to protect Ben when Ben’s father’s acceptance was more grudge than acceptance.
The main conflict between these lovers reunited is that Ben is all kinds of tied down to his town and Ross is an iteration of the prodigal son (just replace the “reckless spending” with “beating the light fantastic out of Podunk USA to become a federal agent”). I mostly enjoyed this dynamic and the set-up offers great, instant access to a kind of existential angst. Ben always kind of wanted to leave town himself, but never felt he could. When Ross and Ben discuss where they are in life, though, at times, it feels like they rehash the same arguments for/against a small town/big city. After a few go arounds, the arguments started to feel a bit stale and it didn’t feel like either one was moving closer to caving or like they were building towards a compromise. Frankly, towards the end of the book when the same points are made again, I was a bit bored of them. Thankfully, after the big climax in the story with the suspected kidnapper/killer, they fully address this fundamental difference in their lives.
A big part of the action relies on the Ben and Ross’ police work. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s like a procedural, but there is plenty of police business. Ben and Ross are often running around questioning witnesses, bagging evidence, and guessing the suspected killer’s motives. It feels like Dragon tries to show Ross as being something of a profiler. I didn’t really pay attention to how Ross tries to analyze the killer at first, but the longer the story goes on, the more he seems to be explaining how and why the killer does what he does. On the one hand, it’s fun to read the speculation on how the killer thinks. On the other hand, I thought it sort of muddied the waters in terms of what Ross’ actual role is as a federal law enforcement agent (he never seems to introduce himself as a profiler). Like the lovers’ argument about where to live, Ross’ psychoanalysis started to wear a little bit on me, making him come off as a bit condescending.
Overall, though, I think The Rose Man offers a lot for a romance/thriller. Readers to enjoy lovers reunited will likely appreciate the depth to which Dragon shows Ross and Ben struggling to wrangle their hormones and their actual jobs. For fans of law enforcement stories, this book does not shy away from depicting police work. This is a shorter format, so once Ben and Ross zero in on a likely suspect, the police action picks up speed pretty quickly. For anyone looking for a unique, quick read that is well outside the standard Valentine’s Day fare, I think you’ll find a lot of enjoy in this book.