The second in her "Kings of Boston" series, In Retribution attempts to fuse two popular genres into one: organized crime in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and gay erotic romance. Some characters and narrative threads overlap from its prequel, In Silence, and some readers will feel like Part 2 requires reading the first entry in this fictional universe to fill in some key questions within the environment, versus being a true stand-alone. Neverthereless, readers new to Courtney W. Dixon´s fictional universe will find plenty to enjoy here.
In Retribution opens like a Shakespearean tragedy. Brady O´Callaghan is the "Negotiator" for the Irish mob in Boston, whose specialty is in torturing his enemies for information. Only tonight, at the novel´s opening, he is not inflicting pain, but experiencing the aching pleasure of romantic love with his gay lover, Gabriel, heir to the city´s rival Italian mafia. For two years, their union has been kept secret and separate from their violent world, but Brady doesn´t want to live and love in the shadows anymore. He proposes to Gabriel, and the two enjoy a brief respite of joy just before reality brutally (and literally) crashes through their door. Vinny Vinci, of the Italian family, has uncovered their secret, and as retribution tortures Gabriel to death in front of Brady´s eyes. Coiling both his rage and his pain deep within, Brady vows to some day exact revenge, but is scared to reveal this pivotal incident with his own family, fearing the price of an all-out war between the Irish and Italian families.
Fast forward nineteen months, when Brady crosses paths with Charlie at a gay club. Quickly hooking up, Brady´s icy temperament begins to thaw, believing that perhaps it is possible for him to love again. Charlie--younger, sassy, confident--showers his "Red God" Brady with affection, but has his own issues of abandonment to reconcile. Together, they hope that they can both begin again, and exorcise the ghosts of their troubled pasts.
Meanwhile, trouble faces the O`Callaghans. A murder of the Irish family´s head is suspected to be an inside job. Brady´s eldest brother, Ronan, wants "the Negotiator" to extract clues from these betrayers, and find out how to restore strength for their criminal empire. But Brady`s effectiveness at his job grows increasingly fragile, as each time he goes to work as a torturer he keeps seeing his dead lover Gabriel, continues to hear his screams. His only relief, his only peace, comes when he is in bed with Charlie.
Dixon definitely knows how to write steamy, sexy, hot homoerotic sex scenes. The episodes featuring Brady and Charlie are extensive and frequent. Alternating between each character´s point of view, their chapters contain believable dialogue, great details of physical description, and arousing sex. This is by far the greatest strength of In Retribution, the heart of this book, and is a testimony to this writer´s abilities.
By contast, the world of the Irish mob feels hastily thrown together, even superficial. At one point, a love interest of the new mob boss, Ronan, is kidnapped by her abusive ex-husband--a major plot twist which has consequences for the entire O´Callaghan crew. However, in the span of two pages, this woman kills her ex-husband with a gun, is arrested by the police, then exonerated for the murder as well as an earlier crime; charges are brought to the real culprit, a turncoat within the Irish mob; and she refuses to return to Ronan, opting instead to stay with a friend of hers. What? There are so many great scenes here, and I wish they had been given some room to be enjoyed, to be given details instead of a summary.
Also, for a criminal organization, the Irish mob described in the pages of In Retribution is rather benevolent. At one point, wounded members of the O´Callaghans go to a clinic in Boston, one that is in their back pocket so that they don´t have to go to a "regular hospital", and where they can rely on discretion. When not sewing up Irish mobsters, though, we´re told that the clinic serves "the poor and the uninsured." Again, what? This "dark mafia" also refuses to have anything to do with prostitution, which causes surprising alliances in the final chapters, as well as the opportunity to settle old scores. By the end of the book, I had no clear picture of what these criminals actually do to earn their money and to uphold their grip on power.
Mobsters are dangerous and ruthless, in reality as well as in the best kinds of fiction. I would argue that part of the potency of their continued appeal is that their near-sociopathic violence is framed in structures such as "family", of having a code of "honor" and "loyalty." It´s contradictory and uncomfortable, and utterly compelling as dramatic narrative. To strip Brady and his cohorts of this dark characteristic, though--to make these mobsters "ennobled", almost "principled" or "unjust victims"--is to make them far less interesting, and strains this reader´s credulity. The key figures of the Irish mob described in the pages of In Retribution--Brady, his brother Ronan, his lover Charlie--are all reactive: they only commit violence if someone attacks them first. Other characters who are lower down in the O`Callaghan hierarchy, such as Seamus and Declan, seem more like actual criminals--they will change "familial" loyalties if it appears beneficial to them, and have no problem initiating violence. I wished Dixon had chosen to reveal a similar capacity for betrayal, self-centeredness, and the transactional nature of organized crime, in her protagonists Brady and Charlie. Such a creative risk would have made this novel a powerful success in both genres.
As it is, In Retribution surpasses expectations as a homoerotic romance, providing scenes between men which are sexy, sensitive, and fun. As a "dark mafia" story set in contemporary Boston, featuring Irish and Italian (and Russian) mobsters, however, it falls short, crafting more of a mood but refusing to truly sink into the potential darkness of the characters she has invented. Nonetheless, if one is simply looking for exceptional and steamy scenes between two sexy guys in contemporary Boston, In Retribution is a great choice.