One for the Master, One for the Fool - Larry Townsend

Cerisaye's Review

19 year-old Jeff ran away from Iowa with best friend Alfie after a confrontation with his dad over drawings of men in S&M poses.  One night Jeff thinks he’s met the man of his dreams, when taken by a stranger dressed in leather to a decaying mansion where a dungeon awaits and a night of exquisite pleasure-pain.

Bruce MacLeod, MD, PhD, shrink and consultant to LAPD, is also an S&M master with a cute, closeted, actor boyfriend, Frank.  Friend Abe is a Police Commissioner.  When Abe’s wife Alice comes to Bruce asking his help to find her missing nephew, he’s got a bad feeling: young men in LA have only one thing to sell.

Meanwhile there’s been a gruesome double murder, a middle-aged couple in an old mansion in Bel Air within spitting distance of Bruce’s place.  The bodies were discovered by one of the couple’s two sons.  How all this ties together is the basis for the story. 

This book gets off to such a promising start it’s a shame to have to say it just didn’t do it for me.  Not as good as SCORPIUS EQUATION, the writing is overwrought, like Darwin Porter or the more lurid bits of Gordon Merrick. 

The main problem is too many headswitches that leads to lack of focus.  This is meant to be a Bruce MacLeod mystery, yet he’s a walk-on part, and Frank an even more shadowy presence.   I expected something like Joseph Hansen’s Dave & Cecil, Richard Stevenson’s Don & Timmy or Josh Lanyon’s Adrien & Jake.  We follow every character but Bruce MacLeod- even his blankety-blank  dog for crying out loud!  As a result I just didn’t feel any connection, couldn’t really care what happened to him- or anyone else.

Bruce and his buddies frolic naked by the pool of his nice LA home and play at detective.  They’re very cosy with the Police Department, which comes in handy during the course of their investigations.  Sure the book touches on serious issues, like coming out, homophobia, prostitution, hypocrisy, self-esteem, consensual and non-consensual sex, and relationships, but the story is melodrama that didn’t convince me as believable.

I wondered who is meant to be telling the story.  Most of the time we’re in character POV, then there’s this voice like a narrator addressing…who?  The author talking to his readers?  It took me right out of a story that’s all over the place as it is. 

The characters are stereotypical and lack depth because they’re insufficiently developed or just cardboard cut-outs.  One really grated on my nerves, Hugo, an idiot savant straight out of central casting.

It’s explicit, heavy on bondage & leather, but there’s actually surprisingly (okay, disappointingly) little sex.  Townsend distinguishes between S&M scenes that are completely consensual, an expression of trust where bondage heightens the pleasure of love-making and the kind of ugly power games played by those who for reasons of their own need to dominate and subjugate.

I wanted more Bruce & Frank, their deliciously kinky games and long-term relationship where one is out of the closet and the other stuck inside, with a newspaper hack hounding his tail.  Of the supporting characters Jeff is the one I was drawn to, this kid from the Midwest who needs more than Alfie’s gentle, protective love, who takes up with Bruce’s Man Friday, Dennie, a man twice his age. 

The setting is mid-late 80s, so Bruce is doing his investigating at the same time as Dave Brandstetter.  He’s from a younger generation, liberated by his sexuality and identity…which led me to imagine what if they’d met and Bruce encouraged Dave the control freak to let go?  That my mind wandered like this probably shows I wasn’t entirely engaged.  S&M is definitely the highlight and the novel, though frustrating, IS worth reading for that.