Title: Valley of the Dead
Author: J. S. Cook
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: The sense of place in this is fantastic. Roughly half the book takes place in St. John’s, Newfoundland, a city I’ve lived in. Granted I didn’t live there in the 1940s, but the streets and buildings and atmosphere all ring true. The other half takes place in Egypt, and vividly conveys an almost dreamlike sense of how foreign the heat and people feel to the hero, and how sharply the local details stand out as he struggles to make sense of the alliances and lies that surround him.
I read this because I needed a break from sheikh-sheikh-sheikh romances, but I didn’t want to stray too far afield. This is a m/m romance set during WWII, partly in Egypt and partly in Newfoundland, and the hero’s love interest/crush/special friend is Sam Halim, a Cairo policeman up to his ears in international espionage.
I’ve classified this as a romance novel, but really it’s noir, and I think possibly that’s why there’ve been some criticisms of it on Goodreads regarding Jack Stoyles depth of attachment for Sam when they’ve (at the start of the book) only ever exchanged a kiss, and have known each other for a couple of weeks.
Looked at as a romance novel, that would be a flaw: insta-romance is a trope in some romance novels, but not one that works for everyone. But in noir, the instant-pure-love of the hero is a Thing; possibly it’s meant to contrast with the unrelenting grimness and violence that surrounds him. Sam Spade knows Brigid O’Shaughnessy just as briefly when he offers to wait for her for TWENTY YEARS in The Maltese Falcon, after all.
Like any good hardboiled, two-fisted tale, this book has Jack being threatened, kidnapped, and pummeled at every turn, as his determination to find Sam puts him at the centre of a tangled web of shifting international alliances and plots.
Readers looking for a purely historical romance might be put off by the violence, and by the large percentage of plot-to-sex. But if you’re familiar with pulp/noir, and want to see some well-written sex and endless longing against that backdrop, this is a fantastic read.