Story Rating: 4 stars
Audio Rating: 4.25 stars
Narrator: John Solo
Length: 9 hours, 1 minutes
Audiobook Buy Links: Amazon/Audible | iBooks
Book Buy Links: Amazon | iBooks
“It’s Vegas. The city was built for people to come and shake out all their…curiosities.” After questioning his sexuality since he was a teenager and four years of celibacy after a failed marriage, 40-year-old FBI agent Noah Downing finally drums up the courage to try to figure out once and for all if he’s gay. When he’s approached by Cole, a man whose smile makes his pulse race and whose intelligence, kindness, and kisses create the perfect night, Noah knows the answer. When Cole suggests seeing each other again, Noah is eager to embrace this moment in time because definitively knowing that he’s gay does not change the fact that he believes he can’t “be” gay at home. Unfortunately, real life intrudes when the serial murderer, the Co-Ed Killer, strikes in Noah’s district after six years of inactivity. Having been on the original task force, Noah is determined to do everything in his power to catch the monster this time around, including requesting the best FBI profiler be sent in to consult.
In less than 24 hours, Dr. Cole Kennedy found and lost his dream man. Cole has had his share of hookups and bar meets, but when his gaze locks with a pair of soulful hazel eyes, he feels something different, something more. Spending hours talking with the questioning Noah, sharing an evening of smoky jazz and tentative touches and being Noah’s first male kiss only solidifies the feeling. As a forensic criminal psychologist, Cole is confident in his ability to read people and he could have sworn Noah was as moved as he was by their night together, so when Noah stands him up and ghosts him, Cole is left puzzled, confused, and morose. When his time in Vegas is cut short and he’s sent to Iowa to consult on a case, he’s hoping the work will stop his obsessing about Noah and overanalyzing what was obviously only an experiment. Finding out that not only is Noah the agent in charge of the case (and technically his boss), but also horrified to see him is the icing on the craptastic cake.
Despite Noah’s extreme fear of being found out and the excruciating awkwardness between them, Noah desperately needs Cole’s help; the killer is methodical, meticulous, and organized, and stopping them has to take precedence over Noah’s turbulent emotions. As they work together, the connection Cole and Noah forged the night they met grows even stronger, almost tempting Noah into believing he can be himself. But Noah’s doubts aren’t the only thing endangering a future with Cole and closing in on the Co-Ed Killer may put the men in a killer’s crosshairs.
Tal Bauer is generally great at delivering emotional impact, and does it masterfully at the beginning of The Murder Between Us. Bauer wraps the reader in the most heart-warming, delightful, and romantic embrace of an unexpected date, first kiss, and Noah’s emotional exuberance…only to plunge them almost immediately afterwards into a scene of agonizing brutality and gut-wrenching despair. Not only does it do a good job in underscoring how hopeless Noah feels about what he believes is his reality, but also prepares the reader for the major emotional through line of the narrative (especially when it comes to Noah): high highs and low lows.
Noah is DEEPLY closeted, so terrified of being gay that he’s basically convinced himself he’s unsure about his sexuality. Between his literally gut-churning fear and his feelings of inadequacy (as a father, a husband, an investigator, a human being) and lack of self-worth, Noah is an emotional mess for most of the book. His very personal feelings of failure in not catching the Co-Ed Killer before and involvement with some of the new victims adds to his stressed, emotional volatility—almost to the point of making him unbelievable as an accomplished senior FBI agent. The compressed timespan of the narrative is a double-edged sword; the high tension atmosphere and high stakes feed the emotional intensity, while at the same time, demanding composure and professionalism because missing something is detrimental. At times, it feels as if Bauer is so intent on showing Noah and Cole to be good guys who haven’t let the horrors of the job harden them that some of their reactions seem out of place and unrealistic for how long they’ve been agents and, in Cole’s case, even more unbelievable since his job as an FBI profiler means he’s always called to the most vicious, violent, and ugly crime scenes.
This is what consistently keeps me from loving Bauer’s books; the characters tend to be people in power, doing important work that requires focus and discipline, but to varying degrees they get so emotionally wrapped up in each other that they begin to feel irresponsible, sometimes dangerously so. Murder definitely skirts the line for me at times, for while Cole and Noah aren’t as hair-pullingly terrible at their jobs as say, President Jack and his VERY Special Agent from Enemies of the State, there are enough inappropriate “omg he’s so dreamy and smart and the mostest” heart-eyed gushing to give me pause. I’ve said it before though, credit to Bauer’s skill as a writer that it’s even remotely believable and only one scene made me actively uncomfortable. I mean, I totally understand a competence/intelligence kink, but when you’re waxing poetic about your man and wondering about your own need/lust cycle while he’s in the middle of discussing a sadistic serial killer’s hunt/kill cycle and paraphilias (with strangulation being the killer’s climatic moment), it’s a bit much IMO. It also doesn’t help when it appears that the characters are so in their feelings, they make assumptions or miss things that “the best” at their job shouldn’t.
However, Bauer does make Cole and Noah as individuals and as a couple complex and interesting. Bauer even makes the depth of their insta-love feel believable for the MCs; their earnest passion, care, and longing are palpable. While I never quite understood the reason behind Noah’s almost phobia levels of fear of being gay, his dedication to his daughter and their relationship is lovely (even in its OTT moments), as is Cole’s eventual integration into their lives. The structure of the investigation is also one of my favorite kinds. This isn’t a high-octane, follow the clues kind of mystery. Most of the information gained comes from the behavioral analysis, and the investigation revolves around creating the profile and sorting the information and suspects from the old and new cases. I also appreciate that the aftermath from the case and the reality of Cole and Noah’s HEA is explored (particularly having a long-distance relationship with a job that requires a lot of travel).
For the most part, I also enjoyed John Solo’s narration. I have a complicated relationship with most of Solo’s work. He’s a talented narrator, but at times the choices he makes when it comes to word emphasis and cadence can be distracting at best, or detract from the story at worst. At times his performances can be a bit…performative—taking a relatively unimportant or innocuous word and conveying it with the gravitas usually reserved for funerals or delivering an already emotional scene/statement with soap opera levels of dramatic flair makes him come across as hammy. For me, The Murder Between Us is one of his better efforts. His vocal choices and inflections for most of the characters fit them very well and accurately reflect their personalities. His cadence is distinctive, but well-paced and not overly distracting, and there are only a few moments where he pushes the drama into laughable instead of emotional impactful.
Overall, The Murder Between Us is an entertaining romantic suspense and an enjoyable listening experience, especially for those who don’t mind a bit of suspension of disbelief and are fans of John Solo, insta-love, really sweet romance, and a good person with no sense of self-worth finding someone who sees and values them.