Narrator: Vikas Adam
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery, noir
Length: 9 hours and 57 minutes
Published by Forge Books on October 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
A delicious story from a new voice in suspense, Lev AC Rosen's Lavender House is Knives Out with a queer historical twist.
Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret—but it's not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they've needed to keep others out. And now they're worried they're keeping a murderer in.
Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept—his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand.
Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He's seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn't extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy—and Irene’s death is only the beginning.
When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.
When Andy Mills meets Pearl Velez in a bar that’s just on the edge of seedy, they need each other – just not in any of the ways that one might expect at the opening of this dark, very noir-ish historical mystery.
Andy needs a purpose, and Pearl needs to give him one. Pearl needs an experienced detective that she can trust to investigate the recent death of her wife. And she knows that Andy is both experienced and trustworthy because he just got fired from the SFPD for being caught with his pants down, literally, in a police raid on a gay bar. His career is over. His life feels like it’s over, because all he’s been doing for the past 10 years is living his job and doing his best to keep his secrets. Now he has no secrets, no job, no apartment, no friends and nothing to fall back on.
He’s planning to throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge once it gets dark enough – and once he gets drunk enough. At least that’s the plan until Pearl steps into his life with something that looks like it might BE purpose. And might give him the opportunity to help someone one more time.
Or hurt them worse than he ever imagined – depending on whether the case Pearl wants him to investigate turns out to really be a case. And depending, of course, on whodunnit.
So Pearl whisks Andy off to Lavender House, the beautiful home that the late soap magnate Irene Lamontaine and her wife Pearl created for themselves and their entirely queer family. A place where all of them can safely be themselves – as long as no one reveals their secret to the outside world.
Irene’s death might have been an accident. She might have lost her balance and fallen over the railing she was found under. But the fall wasn’t that far and Irene was healthy and energetic in spite of her years. The fall shouldn’t have killed her.
Between her family’s secrets and her family’s money there are plenty of motives for murder. It’s up to Andy to navigate the family’s murky relationships while not letting himself be seduced by living in the first place he’s ever known where he can finally be his authentic self.
Because Lavender House is a kind of paradise, and it’s up to Andy to find the snake in the garden.
Escape Rating A+: There are so many ways to approach this story, and all of them work. Frankly, the story just works. It had me from that opening scene in the bar and didn’t let go until the bittersweet end. To the point where, as much as I LOVED the audiobook, I read the last third as text because I simply had to find out how it ALL worked out.
I was pretty certain I knew whodunnit – and I did – but that wasn’t the most important part of the story. Still, I was glad to be vindicated.
But I did absolutely adore the narrator, Vikas Adam, whose performance definitely added the plus in that A+ Rating. I’ve fallen under his spell before, as he is one of the primary readers for Jenn Lyons’ Chorus of Dragons series, and he’s every bit as good here. To the point where I had to triple-check the credits for the audio. I expected him to do a terrific job with voicing Andy – and he certainly does – but he managed to not sound like himself AT ALL while voicing most of the female characters. I did that triple check because I kept thinking there was a female narrator working with him. But it was all him and it was fantastic.
The story is both a mystery and a heartbreaker, and the hard parts were that much harder to listen to because the narration was just so good.
Lavender House is being promoted as a gay Knives Out – and it certainly is that from the mystery perspective. (The comparison works even better now that it’s been revealed that private investigator Benoit Blanc is also gay.) At least on the surface, it seems as if the Lamontaine family is every bit as wealthy as the Thrombeys, and just as dysfunctional and eccentric. It’s just that the causes of some of the dysfunction at Lavender House can be laid directly at the feet of the 1950s and the circumstances they are forced to live under.
The mystery in Lavender House is fascinating, but it feels like the bleeding heart – sometimes literally – of this story is Andy’s journey. And in some ways the two parallel each other more than I expected.
At the heart of the murder – and at the heart of Andy’s journey, is a story about finding a purpose for one’s life. Andy begins at his lowest ebb because he’s just lost his and doesn’t know how to replace it. He’s lived for his job and now it’s turned on him because of an innate part of his being. Investigating Irene’s death gives him that purpose – even as it forces him to confront all the ways that he stifled himself in order to hang onto that job.
At the same time, all of the tensions at Lavender House, along with most of the motives and dysfunction, also have to do with purpose. For the staff, it’s a VERY safe place to work. But for the family it can sometimes be a gilded cage. Not because they can’t actually leave, but because they have to hide their real selves from the world when they do. And if they have no purpose within the house, as is true for two members of that family, they also have no way of making one outside it.
In the end, the solution to the mystery of Irene Lamontaine’s death was a catharsis but not a surprise. The case does come together just a bit suddenly at the end after a lot of often fruitless digging into scant clues and overabundant motives. But the investigation does hold the reader’s interest well, even when it delves into the angst in Andy’s head as much as it does the death that kicked things off.
But Andy’s journey from pretending to be ‘one of the boys’ at the cop shop through closed doors and literal beatings from his former colleagues to the realization that even if he can’t remain in the paradise of Lavender House that he can have a good and fulfilling life – if not always a totally free or completely safe one – as a gay man in 1950s San Francisco, with all the potential for pain and heartbreak and joy, is one that will haunt me for a long time.
Reviewer’s Note: Also that cover is just really, really cool. It’s almost like that damn dress that was either blue and black or white and gold. The more I look at it the more I see. Not just that it’s a silhouette, but there’s a face. And the rabbits. And eyes. So many facets – just like the story it represents.