It requires a unique talent to take what amounts to long-standing tropes of a particular genre then bend them ever so subtly in such a way whereas to end up with something that feels totally fresh and innovative, however that is exactly what P. J. Vernon has accomplished with Bath Haus – an Own Voices mystery that could be classified as DOMestic SUBspense, if that were not trying just a little too hard to be witty and clever.
Bath Haus is the story of Oliver and Nathan, a couple who seem on the verge of having it all. Despite their differences – Oliver is younger and a recovering addict, while Nathan is more mature and a successful surgeon – their life around Washington DC seems comfortable and content, albeit perhaps just a tad humdrum. All that changes when Nathan is called away on a business trip.
While Oliver knows it is a horrible idea, he simply cannot resist the temptation to visit Haus, a gay bathhouse notorious for providing steamy action and easy hook-ups far away from prying eyes. It is there that he encounters Kristian and follows the sexy man into a private room – a decision that will have devastating consequences. Locked in a room the size of a closet with a stranger, Oliver realizes his mistake too late. Kristian’s aura of sadomasochistic roughness suddenly turns dangerous when he attempts to strangle Oliver.
Barely escaping with his life, Oliver must now face a daunting decision: does he go to the police and risk having his cheating escapade exposed to his loving husband or does he keep quiet, suffering the post-traumatic stress of such a horrific incident alone? Turns out he might not have a choice. When Kristian begins taunting and threatening Oliver from afar, the only way to stay alive might be to come clean about his indiscretion. And even that might not be enough.
Each of the five sections of the novel is titled after a stage of asphyxiation which is fitting as the novel is in a constant state of tightening the noose leading to the reader’s breathless consumption of the action at hand. At times, things get so intense that some readers might long for a safe word to give them a breather from the onslaught.
P. J. Vernon’s coup d’literature is his ability to make readers care for Oliver – a character flawed in so many ways. While Oliver is constantly making bad choices, readers are encouraged to root for him because of the surrounding cast. The power dynamics in the Oliver/Nathan relationship place Oliver in the under-dog position, while at the same time juxtaposing him with a truly evil character like Kristian makes Oliver’s transgressions seem like simple mistakes. No one is going to let Oliver off the hook completely – he did walk into Haus willingly – but perhaps death is too high a price to pay for such a colossal lapse in judgement.
P. J. Vernon’s debut, When You Find Me, forecasted a successful crime fiction career for this new talent, but it is Bath Haus that cements it. The combination of sexy and dangerous is something that few readers can resist, so Vernon capitalizes on that while staying true to himself – and in doing so he might just cause a seismic shift in the crime fiction genre itself.
Disclaimer: An e-galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the author. No promotion was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.