Ricky Morris never dreamed of becoming a private investigator, but when his superior officer caught him locking lips with another man outside a New York nightclub…well, he considered himself lucky he got to “resign” from the New York Police Department. Now, Ricky peddles his gumshoe skills helping housewives track down philandering husbands. It pays the bills, but it’s dull as drying paint. That is, until Timothy Ward crosses his threshold. Not only is he Ricky’s type, but he wants to engage Ricky’s services to investigate an outlandish idea: the Deputy Chief may behind a string of murders dubbed the “Sweetheart Murders” due to the proximity to Valentine’s day and because the murder weapon is poisoned chocolate. The claim is almost too wild for Ricky. Not the idea of a crooked cop, but that Timothy is half convinced the Deputy Chief may be the culprit. After all, the Deputy Chief isn’t just the man who forced Ricky to retire, he is Timothy’s overbearing older brother.
Timothy knows something awful is happening between his brother, James, and his sister-in-law, Primrose. The weekly suppers at their sumptuous brownstone have turned decidedly uncomfortable. It’s not just the shouting, but the way James takes off in a whirlwind of anger afterwards. And the fact that a dead body always seems to turn up on a night when James and his wife have fought. It has Timothy seeking Ricky’s help. It may even be a bit of an advantage that Ricky has something of an axe to grind where James is concerned. Soon, their investigation into James’ activities leads them to an underground club that surprisingly caters to gay clientele. The trip also lands Ricky and Timothy in trouble with a blackmailer. Someone knows that they went to the club and now they’re being threatened with exposure if they continue to investigate the murders. Things take a turn for the worse when Ricky himself receives the murder’s calling card: a box of poisoned chocolates.
A Valentine to Die For is a historical mystery/suspense novel from author Aver Rigsly and the first in her Noir Nights series. It is set in 1950s New York where being gay is still very much criminalized. Rigsly works hard to build the world through Ricky’s speech, often peppered with old timey terms like “doll” as a term of endearment. I liked the tone of Ricky’s dialogue and the effort at period language, but I thought he sounded like someone from a prohibition era gangster film. It didn’t take me out of the story, just make me feel like Ricky was a bit time out of place. To balance Ricky’s savoir faire, Timothy is shy and earnest and still definitely trying to prove himself. As a kid, he was in an accident that left him partially hearing impaired and he contends with feeling like people write him off because of his hearing aid.
The chemistry between Ricky and Timothy is sweet. Ricky learns pretty quick that Timothy and James are brothers, meaning Timothy knows why Ricky is no longer a police officer–i.e. that Ricky is gay. I feel like it took more work to firmly establish Timothy’s sexuality. From the start, I understood Ricky and Timothy would be The Couple, but it felt like quite a bit of time passed before Ricky understood that Timothy was attracted to men. It wasn’t until they’re sucking face in the gay bar that I think it was clear both to the characters and the reader that there was a chance at building something. Nevertheless, these two interact delightfully. Ricky is a bit older and definitely more seasoned. As a private investigator, he’s seen a lot and knows how to get information. Timothy is a desk-riding police officer who has solid instincts, but lacks the kinds of useful connections that would help him with fieldwork. This dynamic also plays out when they get intimate, with Ricky taking the lead. Though the story is pretty light in spice, it was satisfying watching these two connect on a physical level.
As far as the mystery goes, I really enjoyed how Ricky and Timothy approach the Sweetheart Murders from totally different angles. Timothy basically wants proof that his brother is not the murderer and Ricky is excited for the chance to get real dirt on the Deputy Chief. When they discover I thought his indignation really matched his character and the scenario. This also offered a bit of drama since Ricky is then ready to wash his hands of the whole thing, but Timothy is still just as invested in finding out who the real murderer is. The two romantic leads suddenly have vastly different motivation. Or rather, Ricky has lost his motivation and Timothy is rearing to solve the murders. Here, I thought Rigsly pulled this bit of mystery off well. It’s very clear where Ricky and Timothy stand regarding finding the killer, but I enjoyed how Ricky responds when he pieces the clues together. And the big reveal about the culprit gets played out in terrific high-stakes fashion. Not only is there mortal danger for our MCs, but there is an opportunity for Ricky and Timothy to make amends…provided they both survive.
Overall, I was just very entertained by this story. It’s on the shorter side, but Rigsly creates a small cast of characters that I could grow to like and care about. Our two leads are well rounded individuals with strengths as well as flaws. I enjoyed watching them interact, learn what the other was capable of…and what they were not capable of. There is a smidge of angst that I thought really worked out well. And the ending was dramatic without being melodramatic. It really fit the tone of the book and the characters. If you like police stories, mysteries, or historical books, I think you’ll enjoy A Valentine to Die For a lot.