by Pepper Espinoza, contemporary (2009, reissue)
Liquid Silver Books, $6.10, ISBN 978-1-59578-551-0
Mad World was previously published by Whiskey Creek Press back in 2006, back before the author became more well-known as one half of Jamie Craig, the McDonald's of gay romance.
Pepper Espinoza's Mad World breaks every rule in the romance genre that I simply have to like this book out of principle. No, really, this story features a sociopath cop hero and a prostitute - a real one, not some misunderstood poor dear or a virgin on her first night out in the business - in a relationship that will probably go down well only with fans of noir and novels by Anne Stuart and Meagan McKinney. Calling this story "dark" is understating the gritty and tawdry feel of this story. In fact, assuming that this is a romance novel even in the tradition of Anne Stuart's darkest stories would be a mistake. Mad World is more of a psychosexual thriller than a typical romance novel.
There is a modern-day Jack the Ripper in town, killing prostitutes and taking these women's fingers and other body parts as trophies. Detective Jason Squires who is investigating this case probably doesn't want to end up entangled with a prostitute named Daisy Winters but that is what happens when he leaves the crime site only to pick Daisy up for a bout of really rough sex. Their subsequent encounter culminates with him shoving his gun down her throat and her stealing it. I don't want to give anything more about the story so let me just say that this leads to all kinds of complications and leave it at that. Daisy isn't above blackmailing Jason to help her out of sticky situations while Jason is one cold-hearted and amoral fellow who doesn't hesitate to shoot someone he doesn't like point-blank in the face. Oh, and did I mention that Jason is a married man? As anyone who reads this story will soon discover, however, adultery is the least of his sins.
Ms Espinoza depicts the seedier ghettos of Pomona, California in such a gritty and brutal manner that I can see why the understaffed police department is hard-pressed to bring order to the place. However, Jason is no burned-out cop tortured by the death of a partner or any other typical cop hero stereotype - this is a corrupt cop who just is. Daisy is no tart with a heart of gold either. She isn't above ruthlessly manipulating Jason to extricate her out of her stickier situations and blackmailing him to keep her from being implicated. Their relationship is very unorthodox and politically incorrect, being that both characters are out to use each other as much as they try to figure out whether they want to shag or kill each other.
“So just end it, Jason. You want a written confession first so you don’t get implicated? I’ll do it.”
Jason believed her. He believed she was standing in his arms with a knife to her throat and telling him the God’s honest truth, not out of fear, but simply because she wanted to. Jason slid the knife down her arm, and she released her breath in a sigh. “Are you bluffing when you dare me to do it, Daisy? What if one day I call your bluff?”
“What if I get you long before that happens?” Her hand curled around the matching knife, still hidden by the soap in the other sink. As soon as he pulled his knife away from her body, she spun around and pressed it against his gut. He instantly pressed his knife to her throat again. “What if I get tired of your shit and shoot you in the face?”
They regarded each other silently, his hard cock pressed against her stomach, her heart beating a shallow rhythm in her ears. “Your throat will bleed out a lot faster than my stomach.”
“Should we see?” She pressed harder, and he felt his skin give a bit beneath the blade. “I might die, but I could get a pretty awesome view of your guts first. I once heard that the small intestine is miles long. What do you think?”
He pushed the knife against her until he saw a bit of blood over the blade. She didn’t wince, and instead pushed the knife deeper into the soft skin of his stomach. They stood like that for a long time, both of them bleeding slightly but neither one of them cared.
That is just beautiful, isn't it?
However, while my initial impression of Jason and Daisy in all their beautifully twisted, abusive, and often outright nasty relationship is pure delight, I realize that my attention soon begins to wane as Ms Espinoza keeps the story going and going... and going and going... by introducing some heist-type subplots that turn Daisy into some kind of mastermind only to abandon those subplots quickly after without resolving them fully. I am also disappointed by the author's use of the Diaries and Videos from the Past plot devices in what seems like an attempt to humanize Daisy and Jason. Why humanize them when they are so memorable as they are in all their amoral glory?
Mad World suffers from being too long with most of the late third of the story being a drag but on the whole, I am most fascinated by the two characters' relationship. They beat each other, they lie and hiss at each other, but somehow they manage to become enamored of each other. Ms Espinoza makes me believe that too, much power to her.
Needless to say, this story is not for everyone and especially not genteel readers. This story is more noir than romance featuring main characters that are not nice people by any long shot. The romance has many moments that may shock and disturb readers. But then again, Jason and Daisy are no ordinary characters, just as how their romance and this story therefore shouldn't be ordinary. Mad World is easily one of the more interesting stories I've come across and if you like deliciously disturbing stories of antiheroes, you may want to take a look at this one.
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