Risky Romance: The Novels of P.A. Brown

P. A. Brown takes big risks in her M/M romance crime series, set in the City of Angels and featuring green-eyed L.A.P.D. detective David Laine and his pretty boy partner, computer whiz Chris Bellamere.  Earlier in the series, Brown pushed the romance genre to its limit; with her latest, L.A. Bytes, she passes over to mainstream gay mystery.  Nevertheless, romance is what the story is ultimately about.  Brown says, “Even while the sex might not be as prevalent in my later books, I still want the relationship to be part of the story.”

L.A. Heat, the first book in the series, opens with closeted LAPD detective David Laine at the scene of the latest in a series of grisly gay murders.  Brown immediately captures the reader with a gritty deadpan style that fits this police procedural as perfectly as black and white fits “Dragnet”:

The John Doe had been dead for days.  Flies buzzed around the corpse, crawling over sunken eyes and up collapsing nostrils.  From the doorway LAPD Homicide Detective David Eric Laine could see the skin sloughing off dehydrated muscles.  He held his breath against the stench.  After fourteen years on the force he figured he had seen it all.  But sometimes the doers still managed to surprise him with their brutality.

The corpse isn’t the only thing ugly about this investigation; Laine is surrounded by the homophobia of the LAPD, not least that in his partner, Martinez Lopez.

Laine is a Joe Friday look-alike.  Brown admits, “My men aren’t Harlequin handsome.  Well, Chris is, but he’s meant to be a wet dream—out of David’s reach.”  Like Friday, Laine plays it strictly by the book until he finds himself lip-locked with Chris Bellamere, a pretty-boy blond who sure looks guilty.

Because Brown portrays Laine so realistically, the romance seems implausible.  Would Laine really let himself be overcome by passion for the investigation’s chief suspect?  The sex is explicit enough to make even gay mainstream mystery readers blush.  Brown’s risk in introducing these romance elements into what is essentially a police procedural pays off because it magnifies the risk that the closeted David takes when he decides to love another man.  We are so out as a gay culture that Brown must shock us with explicit sex to restore that frission of excitement we experienced when we first came out.  Brown captures David’s moment of decision with heartbreaking precision:

He could lie and Martinez would pretend to believe him.  Safety in fiction.  Then he glanced over at Chris… A lie would only seal the grave of any relationship he might have forged with the younger man.  Some things couldn’t survive that level of betrayal.  He faced Martinez, folding his arms over the thick barrel of his chest.  The weight of his service weapon pressed into his ribs.  “I’m gay, Martinez…”

Brown shows in the book’s bloody dénouement that not coming out carries an even greater risk.

In Brown’s novels, the happily ever after follows a bumpier course than in traditional romance.  Brown says, “I don’t want to be a pure romance writer.  I want my characters to be more realistic, a little dirtier and darker.”  The novella L.A. Mischief begins not too many months into David and Chris’s new relationship, with the two men split up and Chris having unsafe sex with “not David.”  David himself is involved in an uncommitted romance with a black leatherman.  Just as in L.A. Heat, L.A. Mischief Brown’s richly drawn supporting characters play important roles in shaping the growth of our protagonists.  Brown said, “My goal from the beginning, once I knew I was going to make it a series, was that Chris and David and even the people around them, would grow and change.”  She says, “Even David’s partner [Martinez] went from being rabidly homophobic to beginning to be comfortable around Chris and David.”  In L.A. Mischief Chris is forced to face his own shallow sexual choices and fear of commitment through his relationship with his best friend, Des, who is recovering from a brutal rape.  David, too, faces the fact that being out means more than being able to have a sex life, it means owning up to his heart.  David takes Chris as his boyfriend to an L.A.P.D. family function.  The novella ends with David bottoming for Chris:

Sharp pain assaulted David’s ass, but quickly turned to burning heat, then liquid fire.

Brown once again uses explicit sex to show the level of risk involved in deciding to commit oneself in love.

Brown says that the third book in the series, L.A. Boneyard, is her favorite.  “It was the darkest and most emotional one for me,” she said.  The book’s ending was “an unplanned surprise” that, she says, was “painful for me to write.”  The novel opens with Chris bringing home a stray Doberman to the disapproval of cat-lover David, a development that Brown playfully uses to introduce the theme of faithfulness in love.  But the “boneyard” of the title is a bloody one and another prominent “boner” in the book almost ends David and Chris’ relationship.

In L.A. Boneyard, David’s long-term partner, Martinez, is reassigned to a gang unit and David has to break in the highly personable young rookie, Jairo Garcia Hernandez.  Jairo sets out to create a destructive jealousy in Chris that is much better founded than Othello’s baseless jealousy towards the hapless Desdemona:

Desire swept through David, and he opened his mouth to Jairo’s encroaching tongue.  He tasted of beer, and peanuts, and it brought him to instant hardness.  David’s hands roamed over Jairo’s back, sliding over the hard muscles of his ass, feeling them clench at his touch.  It was several heart-pounding seconds before he pushed the other man away.  Mesmerized, he stared down at Jairo’s slightly parted mouth, and closed his eyes when their lips met again.

Brown admits, “I got all kinds of flak over David and Jairo.  I guess I pushed the boundaries of romance big time on that one.”  But Brown says, “People in real life have temptations, sometimes they even slip.”  Most importantly, David and Jairo’s high risk sex reveals the high risk of being faithful, to one’s spouse, to one’s self.

L.A. Boneyard climaxes with a meticulously drawn action sequence that in the hands of a less skilled writer than Brown could have become a confused mess, but Brown makes sure the reader knows exactly what is happening with each skid of tires and exchange of automatic gun fire.

I confess that it is the mundane details of the police procedural that keep me glued to the page.  For Brown, crime is fascinating, but she is also intrigued “by the efforts that went in to finding the murderers, the blunders that were made by the police and how they finally convicted them.”  Her description of cop routine is precise and chilling:

Nearby other autopsy technicians were working over other tables, moving from body to body.  An assembly line of corpses.  The County Coroner handled nearly eight thousand autopsies a year.  Sometimes the dead were famous, but mostly they were just dead.

In the latest in the series, L.A. Bytes, Chris takes a more central role in the investigation of the mystery because of his computer hacking skills, and David is the one who ends up needing to be rescued.  Brown puts her background as a network engineer to good use, convincingly relating a high-tech computer terrorist plot, even though she confesses, “I never had Chris’ hacking ability.”  The highly charged erotic elements of the first books are largely gone from this mainstream mystery.  Brown says, “I never set out to write an erotic book, but it seemed I would have a better chance of getting my novels published by doing the stories with a bit more eroticism.”  But Brown acknowledges the erotic element also limits her readership, she says, “There are still mystery readers who don’t want any sex in their books.”  She says, “So, I had hopes with Boneyard and Bytes to have something a bit more mainstream.”

Perhaps, also, just as the explicit sex in the first three books highlighted in those books the risk of gay love—coming out, commitment and faithfulness—the lack of explicit sex in Bytes emphasizes another aspect of gay romance—the risk of living everyday life as a gay couple.  David and Chris, now legally married (in Canada), are finally adjusting to life together.  Chris is reluctantly accepting his role as a cop’s spouse.  David is beginning to see gray hair in his furry chest and wonders what the younger man sees in him.  More in love than ever, the two are now in it for the long haul.

That is, if they survive.  L.A. Bytes starts out with David going into anaphylactic shock and the two seem as if they are hospitalized throughout the book.  Brown must have taken one of her frequent research trips to Los Angeles from her native Canada to suss out the interiors of the three major hospitals featured in the book.  By now it’s a given that David and Chris will barely emerge alive at the end of each novel.  One or the other has been shot, stabbed, strangled, auto-wrecked, beaten, blown-up, poisoned—and that’s not all-inclusive.  Brown smiles, “David and Chris may be vulnerable emotionally, but they’re supermen in the healing department.”

And they’ll be back for more.  Brown says she is currently at work on the next David-Laine-Chris Bellamere novel.  “The book is called Bermuda Heat,” she said, “and should be out either later this year or early next.  Since I lived in Bermuda for two years I had to use it in at least one book.  Maybe I can even return to Bermuda for a book launch!”  Brown adds that she plans to write a sixth David Laine-Chris Bellamere book after that, tentatively titled, L.A. Mayhem. Brown plans to return to Los Angeles next year to do research for the novel.  In Mayhem, David and Chris return to Los Angeles in a plot that involves bank robbers (“Los Angeles is the bank robber capital of the world,” Brown says) and gangbangers, including the now teenaged son of David’s ex-partner, Jairo.