Story Rating: 4 stars
Audio Rating: 4.25 stars
Narrator: J.F. Harding
Length: 8 hours, 47 minutes
When Anthony “Tony” Hart heads back into school for a forgotten box of books, he never expects to run into a coworker with a knife in his chest, and while Mr. Weston was a bit of a smug git, Tony can’t imagine someone wanting to kill him or that he himself would be ensnared in the investigation. For Jared “Mac” McLean, being a good father and a good cop means being diligent, hard-working, and willing to make sacrifices, which includes being closeted. Coming out is not an option and if that means never having a loving relationship and being content to fly to Vegas a couple of times a year for anonymous hookups, then so be it. So no matter how attracted he is to the handsome witness, the man is young, local, and, most troubling, out—therefore off-limits. Yet, no matter how often he reminds himself of these facts, Mac can’t stop thinking about Tony, and when it becomes apparent the killer has his eye on Tony, staying away becomes an impossibility.
Life Lessons is a slow burn police procedural featuring a high school teacher who unwittingly captures the attention of a killer and a detective determined to keep him from becoming the next victim. Both MCs are likable characters who get off to a rocky start and wish they aren’t attracted to one another—Tony because he thinks Mac is straight and Mac because being attracted to someone he likes is detrimental to remaining in the closet. Because Tony is unaware that Mac is gay for about half of the story and Mac is great at hiding, there’s no flirtation, longing looks, or “heated” glances. However, this works for me as they are entrenched in a murder investigation and Mac’s increased presence in Tony’s life is because Tony is being targeted. While both men are attracted to each other early on, the moment they first bond centers around their roles as parental figures. Tony is a foster father to his deceased best friend’s son, Ben, who meets Mac’s daughter, Anna, at the zoo. They get to see a different side to one another beyond their previously limited (and somewhat testy) interactions, deepening the attraction.
The story is more realistic in its depiction of the difficulty and grinding involved in murder investigations; the narrative isn’t littered with unnecessary red-herrings or well-timed clues that happen to fall into the intrepid investigator’s lap. There aren’t a lot of action sequences or bad boys shenanigans and the results of Tony’s attempts to help the investigation are a bit more believable than the popular ‘amateur sleuth somehow solves the mystery a team of detectives couldn’t’ trope. There’s a lot of introspection and dealing with emotional stress on Tony’s part as he’s tries to process what’s going on. There are a few tension-breaking scenes with Tony’s best friend, Marty, but depending on how you like your mysteries, the methodical pacing and relatively straightforward case may feel slow or unexciting.
Additionally, some may find the romance element lacking as Mac and Tony’s relationship is in the very early HFN stages by the end of the book (with them getting their HEA in book 4 of the series). The shift to lovers is after an extremely traumatic event close to the climax (about 2 days in story time); thus, it doesn’t get much breathing room and its circumstances may come across as a bit problematic, but it mostly works in the context of events. Moreover, the epilogue gives a nice look into where the couple stands in the aftermath of the investigation. On top of dealing with the trauma of watching a coworker die and related events, each man is learning to navigate something entirely new—for Mac, it’s navigating his first romantic relationship and for Tony, it’s navigating a closeted one. Personally, I really like the adult conversations the MCs have about why Mac is closeted/his reasons for never planning to be out and what that means for Tony. I understand why stories usually portray being out as the braver and better choice, but I appreciate Harper’s nuanced portrayal of the topic.
While I look forward to continuing Mac and Tony’s relationship development, there is also some interesting ground to explore beyond Mac being closeted as both men are in precarious parental situations. While Tony loves Ben and considers him his son, he has no parental rights and his relationship with Ben’s mother is…tense. As for Mac, being a newly minted father, detective, and single parent without family or a support network had him grasping desperately to the one safety net he could find after his wife died. It provides structure and security for his daughter in some ways, but will become more problematic as Anna gets older. While I’m not of fan of the dead/bad mom trope and dread the potential ugliness to come, I am interested to see how Harper handles it.
I also enjoyed J.F. Harding’s narration. He has a distinct but unobtrusive exposition voice, as well as an interesting character voice range. His no-nonsense voice for Mac fits the character perfectly, and all the character voices are unique. Both Tony and Mac are pretty level-headed/unflappable so I can see Harding’s affect seeming flat at times, but to me, it fits who the characters are and the tone of the story. I also enjoy how he layers in some Midwest/Minnesotan flavor to some of the voices and dialogue as befits the setting. All in all, I think the audio of Life Lessons is an enjoyable listen I’d recommend to those who like subdued romantic suspense and don’t mind a nascent romance.
The audiobook was produced from the lightly edited re-release of the 2011 original.