Jeff Erno is an old pro who writes with the pace, enthusiasm and eroticism of a first-timer. There is a canniness underneath, though, that reminds the reader that Erno has been entertaining us for quite a while with his gay romance and young adult novels, perhaps most famously Trust Me and the Dumb Jock series. With Secrets, Erno’s newest, out in September from Dreamspinner Press, the prolific Michigander launches a gay crime series called The Full Nelson. We can only be happy that it’s a series and so there will be more.
“Nelson” not as in wrestling (well, kind of), but as in Chris Nelson, an openly gay cop assigned to investigate the brutal murder of a swim team coach at a military academy. The crime has gay overtones, so we sympathize with Chris’s annoyance and discomfort at being automatically handed the assignment by a harried and insensitive superior. At the same time, Chris himself is not the most easygoing guy on the force. His interactions with superiors, witnesses, suspects and even his newly assigned female partner have a disquieting edge that suggests he might in fact not be the best man for the job. (Said partner at one point delivers the best female comeback to male assholitry that I have ever heard.)
As the case becomes more complex and the academy’s reticent young athletes slowly reveal more (some of it true, some of it not) about their relationships to the coach, Chris’s home life is kept nice and hot by hunky and energetic husband Ethan. These two lose no time in freely expressing their passion for one another on several occasions.
Meanwhile, Erno moves the crime-solving action along with a sure feel for timing and suspense. The young cadets, all mired in adolescence, have their own fears and loyalties, so they continually throw Chris, and the reader, off the scent. Then, just as we see a final resolution coming, Ethan unexpectedly becomes involved in a heart-stopping climax. (Ethan is of course also responsible for many other heart-stopping climaxes—of a different kind—throughout the book!)
In the end Chris proves he was indeed the right man for the job. Backed up by the right man at home and by his sardonic partner, he untangles the cadets’ and the coach’s webs of shame and fear. One need not have been sexually traumatized to the degree these boys have to identify with their feelings. If you passed through adolescence and were mystified and frightened by the onset of puberty and the secrets of adults, especially the sexual secrets, you can feel for Erno’s young heroes. You will feel for his older ones, too, especially the adorably hot couple at the center of the book. We can only be excited that Erno is already preparing the next Full Nelson book, Glitter, for release. Each of us can come back for more suspense, more twists and turns, and maybe some more vicarious three-ways with Ethan and Chris!
Reviewed by David Pratt