Title ~ Conflict of Interest
Author ~ Zahra Owens
Publisher ~ Dreamspinner Press
Published ~ 15th April 2015
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Romance, Mystery/Suspense
When a material witness changes her story during a court interrogation, allowing the man who assaulted her little boy to go free, Senior Crown Prosecutor Finn DeHavilland's legendary self-control goes out the window. His subsequent suspension from appearing in court leaves Finn with time on his hands. Desperate to continue working, and after regularly attending his mandatory psychiatric sessions, he accepts a delicate case involving a fraudulent Scotland Yard police detective.
Excited to be assigned to the case, DS Tommy Drummond, who has had a soft spot for Finn since Finn defended him during an internal investigation, and his partner, Stevie Fielding, begin uncovering evidence. A series of seemingly random occurrences muddle their investigation. Believing they’re on the right path, the team pushes forward, until Tommy’s apartment goes up in flames. Offering Tommy a guest room in his home turns up the heat on the growing feelings between Finn and Tommy. But Finn’s baggage may be too much to deal with, and paranoia threatens to tear them apart. As the net around the corrupt detective tightens, it becomes clear he must have had help from high places, and Finn and Tommy become pawns in the game.
“Conflict of Interest” was my first introduction to a truly talented writer, Zahra Owens. This is the first book of hers I’ve read, and I promise you it will not be the last.
It’s so rare that any single book gets gay romance, crime mystery and courtroom drama not just right, but in perfect harmony, where the personal story and the courtroom story actually build upon each other, rather than vying with each other to drive the book. “Conflict of Interest” gets that balance exactly right, and it’s even more of a surprise as it’s set in Great Britain, where the courtroom etiquette, procedure and rules differ profoundly from America’s. At first, I feared I might get lost, or bogged down in detail, and miss the drama of the crime, the investigation and the courtroom. But such is the talent of Ms. Owens, that pretty much everything explains itself, without a lot of description or exposition. The characters just go through their days, their routines, their work, and all becomes clear through their experiences, reactions and dialogue. It is elegantly accomplished. Even an American reader with no experience of the British legal system quickly gets accustomed to its nomenclature, quirks, challenges and occasional triumphs.
“Conflict” is the story of a smart, young, but accomplished Crown Prosecutor, Finn DeHavilland, and an ambitious and dedicated detective, Tommy Drummond, who has worked as the investigator (with his female partner, Stevie) on a number of Finn’s cases. That’s just fine with Tommy, because Tommy has been crushing on Finn, from a distance, for ages. Any opportunity to work in the same room, or even the same courtroom, with Finn, is more than welcome.
When the book opens, Finn is interviewing a witness on the stand, the mother of a violently, sexually abused boy. The accused is her sometime-boyfriend who has skated on any number of prior bad acts. But this time, Finn is about to nail him for good. Until, that is, the mother completely changes her testimony and sings the praises of the monster who repeatedly assaulted and raped her young son. It’s all about fear. Somehow he got to the witness and now she’s too terrified to testify against him.
Finn bears in on her. He approaches her (without the permission of the bench), he appears about to strike her. This most reasonable, collected and steady man is, to be blunt, losing it in front of the whole courtroom. Tommy sees this happening. At a loss for any way of saving Finn, discreetly, from the hole he’s digging for himself, he walks down to the well of the Court, puts his arm around Finn and leads him out of the room. The case is dead, and it looks like Finn’s career is about to follow. Finn has had some kind of breakdown. The unrelenting march of child abusers and murderers who often walked, only to repeat their crimes with fresh victims, has taken its toll. It has somehow all become more than Finn can bear. He lost it. Who can blame him?
While he isn’t fired or demoted, he is sidelined for a bit, and forced to undergo therapy. As therapist, he chooses a smart, insightful lady who has testified for him, more than once, as his psychological expert. At least she’s better than a complete stranger, and Finn hopes to be reinstated as soon as possible, with a quick recommendation from a friendly expert. That is not to be. Ayse Kartal is not about to compromise her ethics with a bogus diagnosis. More important, she really likes Finn and is bound and determined to help him sort out his issues and find peace.
Finn’s exile is eased, just a bit, when Ayse manages to get him back into the office, but not into court. He will now supervise his associates, but will plead no cases and take no leads until he is fully cleared and no longer at risk of losing it in front of a judge.
Finn has never had a relationship with another man (or woman, for that matter). He hasn’t been able to manage it, he hasn’t wanted it, and he’s convinced himself he doesn’t need it. Scarred by events that happened in his youth, he can’t help associating both sex and affection with filth and guilt. Tommy, ever patient and gentle, worms his way, ever so slowly, under Finn’s skin, and into his heart. It’s not all fancy dinners and roses, there are a number of authentic obstacles, and all of the angst and fear rings true. Nothing feels manufactured. This forced interruption, this critical time away from the worst demands of the job, his regular sessions with Ayse and his growing affection for Tommy, all conspire to force him to confront his terrifying fears and guilt.
Somehow, this strange moment in his life gets all bound up with a crime, a serial killer who has been plying his evil under-the-radar. Smart enough to make sure that he always commits his rape-killings in far and disparate locations, so they won’t be connected by the police, he also seems to have some kind of knowledge of police and court procedures that a run-of-the-mill killer should not have. Perhaps the killer is a cop, or someone associated with the Criminal Justice system.
This is perfect for Finn. Still exiled from the courtroom, Finn’s got the requisite skills, resources and time to lead an inquiry, with Tommy and his partner, Stevie, as his investigators. I won’t tell you a lot of what happens, lest I inadvertently disclose some spoilers, but what follows is an exhaustive, sometimes frustrating, search for the culprit, and the mole who is protecting him. The three (plus Ayse, who assists), become an undercover agency of justice, working as a tightly-knit team, as Finn begins to open up a bit to Tommy, who falls in love with him, without reservation.
Someone close to them is exposed as the mole, there are some very close brushes with death for more than one of our characters, and our relentless foursome eventually triumphs over evil and Finn, over his long-buried past.
If you’re looking for a happily-ever-after, you’ll find this book most satisfying. If you’re also looking for an extraordinarily well-written book, with scenes that seem to set themselves, evocative characters who jump off the pages, a total lack of melodrama and artifice in a surprisingly moving story, you’ll simply love “Conflict of Interest”. I know I did, and I recommend it with all my heart. This is a subtle, beautifully-written and exciting story that introduced me to a remarkably talented author whom I hope to read for many years to come.