During World War II, Andy found solace in his crew mate, James, and a bond with their mutual friend, Helen. The three were drawn together by their queerness and able to snatch moments of joy, despite the world’s dire circumstances. Years of living life as though each day may be your last came to an abrupt end when James vanished. Andy was convinced James had been caught with the wrong person at the wrong time and equally convinced he was next. With the war ending and James gone, the world felt a lot more oppressive. Determined to stay free, Andy became a cop and later a private investigator.
Then one day, James himself sneaks into Andy’s PI office. Despite the complex emotions that bubble up with James’ reappearance, Andy does not have the luxury of turning away a paying customer. The cherry on the cake is that James had never been in danger with the navy for being gay before…but now that James is up for a big promotion, he’s being blackmailed with some photos of him in flagrante delicto.
Armed with a scant few pieces of information, Andy starts pounding the pavement. Too bad Andy’s search requires visiting places that cater to gay clientele, exactly the places where his past as a cop makes it very difficult to nail down any leads. Thankfully, one of the queens who performs at the club next to his office not only has myriad social connections, but for some reason, she also thinks that Andy is a good egg. With a few well-placed introductions, Andy slowly begins to tease apart James’ blackmail case. The more he uncovers, the more conflicted he becomes. Not only does Andy learn the truth about James’ sudden disappearance during the war, but Andy reconnects with their mutual friend Helen. Just when the case looks hopeless, a new character with power, money, and a bizarrely impersonal mean streak a mile wide steps onto the scene. He threatens not just Andy’s life, but the bar and its community that Andy now considers home. With the clock ticking down, Andy has to solve two cases of blackmail, sort out his personal feelings towards people he once considered family, and walk a fine line between getting justice for murdered gays and bringing too much attention to his community from the wrong kind of people.
The Bell in the Fog is the second book in the Evander Mills series from author Lev AC Rosen. It picks up not too long after the events of Lavender House; Andy has set up his PI business in the same building as the Ruby, the nightclub owned by his friend, Elsie. Andy serves as our narrator throughout the book and I personally loved how his PI skills helped him analyze new facts and information about the cases he’s working. As a reader, it was gratifying to learn some tidbit, then watch Andy draw the same conclusions as me. As for the details about the blackmail cases, Rosen has done another bang-up job weaving together multiple characters into a complex tapestry that keeps the reader guessing about who’s guilty of what. Unlike Lavender House, Andy is personally invested in the outcome of this case–both insofar as it relates to James and because of the threats Andy receives on his own life and livelihood. Naturally, this opens up a great viewport into Andy’s past, rounding out an already terrific character. Plus, the fact that Andy and James were in something of an open relationship during the war raises all kinds of questions about lovers reuniting. With his old friend Helen coming into the fray, Andy’s personal connections to his case sometimes obfuscate and sometimes edulcorate his mission. In addition to the complicated interpersonal relationships, there was that intriguing third party who swoops in and basically puts the screws to Andy’s thumbs. The overall effect was a marvelous balance between tension and catharsis.
Unlike book one, The Bell in the Fog also treats readers to a more defined romance for Andy. James’ return opens a can of emotional worms within Andy and their reunion was as bitter as it was sweet. At the same time, Andy is nursing a reciprocal crush on Gene, Elsie’s bartender and almost-doctor. I really enjoyed how Andy mulls over what he does and does not feel for each man and how time, distance, and secrets have impacted how he relates to both men. I’m so used to “picking a team,” so it was fun to watch Andy oscillate between the comfortable familiarity he feels with James versus the exciting newness of something unfettered by the past with Gene.
Overall, The Bell in the Fog hits hard on all counts. If you enjoy private investigator stories or thriller/mystery stories, you’ll love the way the drama unfolds from multiple angles in this book. Romance fans will be on tenterhooks wondering if Andy will find happiness with James, Gene, or someone else. Anyone who enjoys strong writing featuring well-defined characters will enjoy this hard-boiled noir-esque story.