Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book Review: To Love a Traitor by J.L. Merrow

To Love a Traitor
From the blurb:

"Wounds of the heart take the longest to heal."
When solicitors clerk George Johnson moves into a rented London room in the winter of 1920, it s with a secret goal: to find out if his fellow lodger, Matthew Connaught, is the wartime traitor who cost George s adored older brother his life.
Yet as he gets to know Matthew an irrepressibly cheerful ad man whose missing arm hasn't dimmed his smile George begins to lose sight of his mission. 
As Matthew's advances become ever harder to resist, George tries to convince himself his brother's death was just the luck of the draw, and to forget he s hiding a secret of his own. His true identity and an act of conscience that shamed his family.
But as their mutual attraction grows, so does Georges desperation to know the truth about what happened that day in Ypres. If only to prove Matthew innocent even if it means losing the man he's come to love. 

Warning: Contains larks in the snow, stiff upper lips, shadows of the Great War, and one man working undercover while another tries to lure him under the covers.

Rosa's Review

You know how in almost every mystery (novel, TV show or movie) there are those people that are disgusted with the investigators. How dare this cop dredge up all this shit that’s best left forgotten or unspoken? What good does this PI do anyone? What kind of nosy housewife enjoys combing through other people’s misery?

I sympathize with those people, but at the same time I don’t entirely get it. In my own life I’d rather feel humiliated and depressed and know than live in uncertainty. And of course in real life there are always questions that will never get answered – so in my fantasy life I get a lot of satisfaction out of the definite answers found in mysteries. But I’ve always wondered if I’d have a different reaction if someone investigated my family or friends. Would I be equally disgusted?

Merrow based To Love a Traitor on her short story Dulce et Decorum Est. In that story George has a secret and he meets and falls in love with Matthew. I really love Dulce – the hurty comfort of it, the Britishness of it always gave me a cozy feeling. Like someone handed me a cup of hot Earl Grey Tea and didn't complain when I drowned it in cream. In Traitor, George has two secrets, one is that he believes Matthew to be the spy that is responsible for his brother’s death, but he falls in love with him anyway.

In Dulce, Matthew is a bit of the “world’s most perfect boyfriend there there I’m just here to see to your needs” character. I loved it. While reading Traitor I had a really hard time imagining that his character was any different. It is, after all, a romance novel and the more I read the harder time I had believing that it was going to be a romance novel where George is in love with an actual traitor. And the more I read the more pissed I got that George even started this investigation. It wasn’t hard to figure out from Matthew’s conversation what had actually happened during the war, what caused George's brother's death, so all George was doing would just end in seriously upsetting my Matthew. How dare he dredge up all this shit? What is the point? What good is it going to do anyone really? George’s brother is dead and nothing is going to change that.

So, yeah, I had quite a different reaction to this book than I’ve had to any other. Which is interesting. And yes, you could make the very convincing argument that if George hadn’t started his investigation he never would’ve met Matthew – I don’t give a SHIT, people! Because in my mind that is just one reality – in the other is the alternate reality of Dulce where George & Matthew fell in love and were happy and there was no upset. I greatly prefer that one.

Another problem I had with Traitor is with...tone, maybe? On one hand there was the same cozy feeling I got from Dulce. There was Matthew’s jolly demeanor, playing in the snow, a comfortable house at Christmastime. On the other, there was war and death and shame. In other books Merrow has balanced such disparate themes (still not sure what words to use there) quite well – for instance in Pressure Head. On one hand it’s a humorous mystery, on the other there are darker themes of bullying and hatred, self or otherwise, of anything out of the “norm.” Even in Dulce there’s the shame George feels over his second secret (which would be a spoiler) – but I thought it blended seamlessly with the rest of the story. It made it better. I didn’t feel that way with Traitor. Instead I kept thinking how different it would be if it was written by someone like Aleksandr Voinov.

Anyway, the novel wasn’t only disappointing. I still liked George (even while I was pissed at him) and Matthew and their romance. I like Matthew’s family. I really enjoyed George’s big secret (the spoilery one) – it’s not something we often hear about in war novels. I like new characters Sheila and Mabel and what they had to say about women’s roles in WWI. I also liked George’s co-workers (whose names I’m blanking on at the moment) – they are completely different people but their friendship shows how you can respect people even while totally disagreeing with them politically or otherwise. And like in Dulce, I love how even in thought George was careful not to betray (until he's certain he won't be betrayed) his preference for the male sex. It's sad, yes, but that's how it was then and I love the realness of it.

In the end I liked the novel; it’s just never going to make a list of my favorite Merrow or my favorite historical novels.

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Thanks for reading my review!

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