"A Perfect Blend of Noir Mystery and Gay Romance"
Reviewed by Lisa Watts
Posted April 3, 2011
Historical | Gay / Lesbian Mystery | Romance Gay
It's 1943 and a dead body is found face-down in a tar pit in
Los Angeles. Lieutenant Mathew Spain is at the crime scene
when he meets reporter Nathan Doyle for the first time.
Matt feels an instant attraction to the young man that he
tries hard to ignore. When Nathan joins the growing suspect
list he decides the only way to prove his innocence is to
solve the crime himself. The two eventually find themselves
working together, facing mortal danger and fighting their
mutual feelings. Both their lives and their careers are on
Many of Lanyon's books have common elements and reoccurring
themes, and SNOWBALL IN HELL is no exception. The novella
focuses on two of his staple characters and a prevalent
story line, a writer and a cop brought together by a crime
who find themselves fighting their attraction to each other.
However, even though the setup is similar to many of
his other stories, the plot is unique and engaging.
The main characters of the story are well developed and
highly likable. Nathan is a young journalist who, although
he needs protecting, has a stubborn streak and a dry wit.
Matt is a cop who is protective of Nathan even as he fights
his feelings. Lanyon does a good job of generating sympathy
for them; they come across as real people that are at a
difficult point in their lives because of circumstances
beyond their control.
SNOWBALL IN HELL is a wonderful blend of mystery and
romance. The relationship between the main characters grows
at a slow, steady pace and is much more believable than the
instant attraction and pursuit that is common in many
romance novels. In a time where homosexuality is considered
a crime, these two men have a lot to overcome to be
together. Their relationship is intense and unbelievably sweet.
Lanyon is a fantastic mystery writer, and this one is very
solid. It accurately reflects the Noir mysteries of the
time in its lean, direct writing style and dark realism, and
the clues will keep you guessing right up until the end.
This novella is a perfect example of why Lanyon's stories
are so addictive.
Los Angeles, 1943
Reporter Nathan Doyle had his reasons to want Phil Arlen
dead, but when he sees the man's body pulled from the La
Brea tar pit, he knows he'll be the prime suspect. He also
knows that his life won't stand up to intense police
scrutiny, so he sets out to crack the case himself.
Lieutenant Matthew Spain's official inquiries soon lead him
to believe that Nathan knows more than he's saying. But
that's not the only reason Matt takes notice of the handsome
journalist. Matt's been drawn to men before, but he must
hide his true feelings—or risk his entire career.
As Nathan digs deeper, it becomes increasingly difficult to
stay one step ahead of Matt Spain—and to deny his intense
attraction to him. Nathan's secrets may not include murder,
but has his hunt put him right in the path of the real
Previously published, newly revised by author.
"Hell of a thing," Jonesy said for the third time.
Matt agreed. It was a hell of a thing. He turned his
gaze from the gaggle of reporters smoking and talking
beside the grouping of snarling cement saber-toothed
tigers, and returned his attention to the sticky,
bedraggled corpse currently watching the birdie for the
Whoever had dumped the dead man had counted on the body
sinking in the black ooze of the Brea Pits, and in the heat
of the summer when the tar heated up and softened…maybe.
But it was December, a little more than a week before
Christmas, and it had been raining steadily for two days.
No chance in hell. The body had rested there, facedown in
the rainwater hiding the treacherous crust of tar beneath,
until the museum paleontologists excavating the site for
fossils had made the grisly early-morning discovery.
"Looks kinda familiar," Jonesy remarked gloomily, as the
plastered hair and drowned eyes were briefly illuminated in
the white flash of the camera.
Matt bit back a laugh. "Yeah? Must be the fact that he’s
Jonesy looked reproachful, although after thirty-three
years on the homicide squad, he’d seen more than his share
of stiffs. They both had, though Matt had seen more violent
death and destruction during his seven months in the
Pacific than he had in his eleven years on the force.
"No identification on him at all?"
"Nope. Even the label was cut out of his jacket. No sign
of his hat or shoes."
Matt considered this. Soaking in water and tar hadn’t
done John Doe’s clothes much good, and they’d have to
wait ’til everything dried before they could hope to get
much from an examination. How much they would get then was
doubtful, but that suit didn’t look particularly old or
worn, and the tailoring was the kind that showed its worth
even in the worst conditions—which these were.
Laughter drifted from the circle of statues where the
reporters and a couple of photographers waited impatiently.
Matt knew most of them: Williams from "The Peach," Mackey
from the Times, Cohen from the Mirror and Tara Renee of the
Examiner. The only one he didn’t recognize was the slim man
lighting Tara’s cigarette. Thin brown fingers cupped the
lighter against the damp breeze; lean, tanned cheek creased
in a smile as Tara flirted with him. Tara flirted with
everyone, but she was a good little crime hound.
"Who’s that?" Matt asked Jonesy, and Jonesy looked up
from the meticulous diagrams he was making of the crime
scene and followed Matt’s stare.
"Doyle. Tribune-Herald. Heard he was with the
Eighth Army in North Africa ’til he picked up a case of
lead poisoning." Jonesy grinned his lopsided smile. "Got
hit by machine-gun fire in Tunisia."
"Yeah, well, there’s a lot of that going around." But
Matt’s interest was unwillingly caught. "So he’s English?"
"Nah. Hometown boy, Loot."
"Doc’s here, Lieutenant," one of the uniformed officers
said as the police ambulance bumped its way over the grassy
Matt nodded and then nodded again toward the
reporters. "Tell ’em I want to see Miss Renee and…" He
thought it over. "Doyle."
When he glanced back, Jonesy was giving him an old-
"What’s that for?" He’d known Jonesy a long time; Jonesy
had been Matt’s old man’s partner. Back then he’d been big
and rawboned with a shock of red hair and a face full of
freckles. The hair was gray now, and the freckles had faded
into a permanently ruddy complexion, but he was still one
of the best detectives on the force—sometimes Matt was
afraid Jonesy was too good a detective.
"She’s a firecracker, that dame. Can’t understand why
any woman would want the police beat."
"I guess she got tired of garden parties and ladies’
fashion." He watched the uni approach the reporters. Heard
the protests of the men from the Daily News, the Times and
the Mirror. Watched Doyle’s surprise at the summons. Doyle
looked past the officer and caught Matt’s gaze. Matt held
it for a moment, then looked away, jotting down a few more
crime scene details in his notebook. From the tire tracks,
it looked like whoever dumped Mr. Doe into the goo had
driven as close as he safely could to the water’s edge.
Maybe that meant something, maybe not.
Out of the corner of his eye Matt could see Tara and
Doyle crossing the soggy grass toward him. Tara’s heels
sank into the mud, and Doyle cupped a chivalrous hand
beneath her elbow, which amused Matt in a sour way. Tara
either had designs on Doyle or thought she could get
something out of him—anyone else would have been handed his
arm back half-chewed.
"Doesn’t look like he drowned," Jonesy was saying.
"He didn’t drown," Matt replied.
The police ambulance rolled to a stop and parked in the
weeds and mud. Across the field and through the trees Matt
could see oil derricks slowly bowing and scraping against
the leaden sky.
"What a smell!" Matt heard Tara exclaim, and the other
reporter, Doyle, said, "Bitumen." He had a quiet voice, and
Matt only caught his reply because he was listening for it.
"Hello, Lieutenant," Tara said, and Matt turned to face
her. "To what do we owe this honor?" Tara was a very pretty
girl with glossy black curls, sparkling dark eyes, rosy
cheeks and a little pointed chin that she wagged too much.
But somehow Matt didn’t like to shut her up. Maybe because
she reminded him a little of Rachel.
"Miss Renee," he said gravely. He glanced at her
companion. "You’re Doyle from the Tribune-Herald?"
"That’s right." Beneath the khaki trench coat, Doyle was
medium height and very thin. His hair, what Matt could see
of it beneath his wide-brimmed hat, was very fair—sun
bleached. He had the overlay of tan that comes from years
spent under a blazing sun, but beneath it he was sallow.
His eyes were light, maybe blue, maybe gray—unexpectedly
bright in his lean face. He studied Matt curiously.
"We’ve got a little problem," Matt said to Tara. "I
thought you might be able to help." She gave him a pert,
inquiring look, and Matt stepped aside so they could get a
look at John Doe. "Either of you recognize him?"
He was watching Doyle. Not because he expected Doyle to
recognize the dead guy—he didn’t figure Doyle had been back
in town long enough to be of much use there—he was just
giving him a break after Tunisia. Doyle glanced down at the
corpse with the weary indifference of a man who’s seen too
much death—and froze.
There wasn’t any mistake. Doyle’s blue-gray eyes
widened. He went perfectly still, apparently forgetting to
Next to him, Tara gasped, and Matt automatically turned
his attention, thinking a drowned man was too much for her
first thing after breakfast. "Phil Arlen," she murmured.
She raised her dark eyes. "That’s Philip Arlen."
Jonesy gave a low whistle.
Matt asked, "Benedict Arlen’s kid?"
"I’m sure of it."
Matt could feel the echo of her words rippling through
the ranks of the crime-scene men. Benedict Arlen was old
money, oil money.
Matt looked back at Doyle, but Doyle had recovered
himself. He met Matt’s gaze and agreed evenly, "It’s Arlen."
"You knew him?"
"I went to school with Bob. His brother. Robert Arlen."
"The old school tie," Matt said dryly. "Was that high
school or college?"
"Loyola High School. Loyola University."
Catholic, Matt thought. Jesuit trained. Not that it
mattered to him. He hadn’t given a damn before the war, and
he sure as hell thought the world should have learned
something about hate by now.
The coroner joined their little tableau. Doc Mason was a
beanpole of a man in a black raincoat. As usual, he was
smoking a pipe, the pleasant homely scent carried on the
rainswept breeze helping to mask other, less pleasant,
odors. "Okay for me to get to work, Lieutenant?"
"He’s all yours," Matt said. "The crime scene was
contaminated from the minute the professors pulled him out
of the drink."
Doyle was watching him with those light, alert eyes.
"What a scoop!" Tara said. "And here I thought it was a
slow week for news."
"When was the last time you saw Phil Arlen?" Matt asked
Doyle shrugged. "It’s been a while."
"Nathan’s only been home a couple of weeks," Tara
said. "He was a war correspondent in North Africa. He was
wounded at Medenine." She made it sound like Doyle had done
something especially clever. Yep, she was interested in
Doyle all right.
At the same time Matt could feel Doyle’s discomfort, his
desire to shut Tara up. Matt could have told him to save
"Had enough for one war?" he asked, not
"So they tell me," Doyle said.
"Lieutenant Spain was on Guadalcanal," Tara put in
ruthlessly. "He took two bullets in the leg."
"Now I can predict rain." Matt held out his hand as a
fat drop hit his nose, and Doyle laughed. He had an easy,
rather husky laugh. Matt found himself smiling back, but he
wasn’t forgetting Doyle’s shocked reaction to the body of
Phil Arlen. Of course that could have been the jolt of a
John Doe turning out to be someone he knew—but if he
instantly recognized Phil Arlen waterlogged and streaked in
mud and tar, he must have seen him fairly recently. And as
far as Matt knew, the closest Arlen had come to the front
lines was watching newsreels in the front row of Grauman’s.
"Have you found any shells?" Doyle asked, watching the
coroner. Tara did a double take.
"You’ve got sharp eyes," Matt commented. And now Doyle
had attracted Jonesy’s attention too.
"He was shot?" Tara asked.
"He was shot all right," Doc Mason said, getting to his
feet. "Twenty-two caliber maybe, fairly close range. Must
have hit the sternum and ricocheted around inside. There’s
no exit wound." He chewed on his pipe stem. "Something
Aware of two very quiet and very attentive reporters,
Matt said, "Fill me in later."
Doc nodded. "We better get him inside."
The rain began to patter down as a couple of men lifted
Arlen’s body onto a stretcher and carried him across the
grass to the waiting ambulance. The morning smelled of rain
and asphalt and pipe tobacco.
A couple of yards away the other reporters had moved
from grumbling to outright sedition.
"Okay, thanks for your help." Matt nodded dismissal to
Nathan Doyle and Tara.
"You’re not making a statement?" Doyle asked.
"Lieutenant Spain never allows himself to be rushed,"
Tara informed him, and Matt shook his head a little at her.
His eyes met Doyle’s again, and a smile tugged at
"Welcome to the neighborhood, Mr. Doyle," Matt said.
"Thanks." Despite the smile, there was a shadowy look to
Doyle’s eyes, the kind of fatigue that didn’t have anything
to do with lack of sleep or months in a hospital. There was
no question which beat Doyle would have preferred to be
"Come on," Tara said, and she linked her arm in
Doyle’s. "The royal audience is at an end."
Sardonically, Matt watched her shepherd Doyle, the two
of them hoofing straight for the main gate, skirting their
clustered colleagues who threw friendly and not-so-friendly
jeers and insults after them. Lights flashing, the
coroner’s ambulance rumbled past them, splashing through
the pools of muddy water as it turned the opposite way,
heading for the rear entrance of the park.
"That Doyle’s an interesting fella," Jonesy remarked.
Matt said nothing, turning back to face the silvery-
For a moment he and Jonesy stood there. Matt was
thinking about the unpleasant task before him: informing
Benedict Arlen that his youngest child was dead. Kind of
ironic when everyone knew Arlen had paid a small fortune to
keep the kid out of the draft. And now he was dead.
Murdered. He might have had a better chance dodging bullets
As he watched, a giant bubble of methane gas formed on
the watery surface of the pit, expanded and dissipated in a
silent gooey pop.
"Disrespectful, tossing the Arlen kid in that muck,"
Jonesy said reflectively.
"Homicide’s disrespectful," Matt replied.
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