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The Definitive Albert J. Sterne - Julie Bozza This book is about charm.

The use of it. The abuse of it. The lack of it. The strength of it.

Albert Sterne is not a charming man.

He is impatient, abrupt, arrogant, irascible, the list goes on.

Fletcher Ash, the only person who has managed to penetrate his defensive field, possesses charm in abundance. He gets on with everyone. His work mates. His superiors. He likes people.

On the surface, you’d assume that being charming is a good thing, yet one of the hardest hitting sections of the book involves a scene where Fletcher comes to realize that he’s been charmed by someone else. That charm can be used as a weapon.

The villain also charms his victims into a false sense of security before striking like a snake.

It is this shared ability to charm that allows Fletcher to gain an insight into the murderer’s psyche.

It is this recognition of the danger of charm that makes Ash seek out a man who doesn't use charm. Inside Fletcher is this fear that he, too, could unleash his natural charm in unethical or criminal ways, and he needs Albert as a counterbalance and foil for this tendency.

There are four linchpins in every murder mystery. Whodunit? What was their motive? How did they do it? And will they get away with it?

The same questions could be addressed to the book itself.

The first? Easy. Julie Bozza spent the majority of her life in Australia but has now returned to England, the land of her birth. Is this relevant? Yes, in that I gather from other reviews that she has some of her facts wrong regarding American FBI procedures. If she has, those errors didn’t bother me, as my awareness of them is based on what I’ve gleaned from TV. Can we be sure that what we see on TV is correct, anyway. Do they follow the same procedures in all cases? And what happens if you have people whose nature ensures they do things their way, not necessarily the correct way? I gather from correspondence that she researched it as much as she could (not just TV), finding in the process that even “Silence of the Lambs” got some facts wrong.

In the end, the procedural aspects didn’t bother me because I was too wrapped up in solving the mystery of the people themselves to be bothered about these sorts of things.

The plot itself revolves around one man’s obsession in tracking down a serial killer. Given the title, you’d think that man was Albert Sterne, but it’s his friend, Fletcher Ash who takes centre stage for most of the book.

For a large section, Albert isn’t even physically present, however, the nature of his personality and their relationship still impinge on Ash’s actions. As his frustration grows because of his inability to solve the crime and prevent more murders, Albert is the one constant he can depend on. It is Albert who gets him back on track when he goes off the rails. He is the one definite thing in Fletcher’s life. The constant.

Albert’s irascible nature actually becomes a relief because it is honest. It is who Albert is. He hasn’t charmed anyone. Not even Fletcher. If anything, he has held Fletcher at arm’s length. Struggling against allowing anyone into his life.
Ash could distract him at the most inopportune moments. A complete waste of energy. But he realized there was no way to undo the damage. He could only hope to minimize its effects, give it the necessary time to wear off.
What a gorgeous way to say he’s in love without saying the “l” word.

I enjoy books where you have to decipher the “shows” or the clues, for yourself. Books that are a mystery on another layer. We’re not told how much Albert loves Ash. We are told that on one level, he doesn’t want to be. But deep down, it’s another matter. If you examine the text, paying attention as you read, all sorts of clues crop up to what is really driving him. For example, Albert’s obsession with the color blue. The analogy of the weeds that infiltrate his garden. The ones he grudgingly accepts because of their blue flowers that remind him of Fletcher’s eyes. The way he cooks and prepares a haven for Fletcher even while verbally warning him away. The descriptions we get:
Ash’s face brightened again, then slowly began to outshine the spring sun.
How can a man who thinks like that be described as cold and unfeeling?Why is he like that might be a better question.

Fletcher has to resort to this type of detection to determine how Albert feels about him. This inability of Albert’s to share his feelings and his passion openly frustrate Ash. Hence his need to seek out what he thinks at first is a more honest relationship only to have his eyes opened to some unpleasant truths.

One of the benefits of eReaders is the ability to annotate as I go. I mark paragraphs that strike me as worth remembering, or quoting. By the time I finished reading, I had a stack.

Woven into the text were some thought-provoking comments on society and people in general. At one point, Fletcher has a conversation about minorities with Xavier, a black gay politician:
“A minority people wants to maintain solidarity, to create a home or an identity without internal divisions, so that it can face the rest of the world. They want to present a positive image. So dissidents, like gays within that minority are silenced twice over because they’re disruptive and they’re seen as a negative. You find that with blacks, with Jews, with Chinese Americans, whatever.”
And then he goes on to say later:
”We need to mingle to successfully co-habit this small world of ours, but mingle without imposing templates on everyone. We need to appreciate the individual, celebrate differences rather than persecute them…..a minority within a minority, like gay black men, needs to first find pride and dignity in its own identity, on its own terms….A small group needs to develop authentic self-determination and then they can choose to become part of mainstream society - a part of the wonderful diverse whole that deserves and demands as much respect as any other part.
Wonderful words, and yet Fletcher was later to question this man’s morals.

This concept of good co-existing with evil or at least cold-hearted pragmatism lies at the heart of each of the four cornerstones of this story: Garrett, Xavier, Albert and Ash. It is the struggle to balance these that I found really fascinating.

Does the end justify the means?

How do you determine where that boundary lies? How did Fletcher?
One telling phrase was
“But if I wouldn’t approve of your means and tactics in the hands of a right wing reactionary, then I can’t in all conscience approve of you.”
From a traditional story telling structure, this whole section in the centre of the book, where Albert Sterne is absent breaks all the rules. Yet even though he is not present, what happens here, the need for Fletcher to seek a different type of relationship and what he learns from it are all totally necessary.

Without it, the guilt, the change in direction, the recognition of what was lacking would not have resonated so soundly.

What other structural points make this book stand head and shoulders above the rest? Incorporation of dreams into text. We are slipped into them seamlessly. No italics to jerk us awake. We are as unaware of them as Fletcher is but soon learn to recognize the sign. See them change to reflect the action leading up to it and the inner turmoil that they are reflecting. These aren’t the typical m/m romance’s clichéd dreams of sex, these are psychologist’s bread and butter. Yearnings for connection, fear of failure.

When awake, Fletcher is acutely aware of the problems with their relationship. And so is Albert who recognizes that he
expected too much, as well, and neither could meet the other’s needs.
But they keep trying. They don’t have hissy fits. They may not lay all the cards on the table when they communicate, but that reflects their own natures and backgrounds.

I have yet to read the follow up story to this, which I gather is a prequel of sorts. I gather it explores their pasts to show how they became the men they are in this book and what motivates them to act the way they do.

Profiling is an important part of whodunits. Building a picture of the perpetrator from the crimes they commit. Trying to gain an understanding about who they are and why they did what they did. In some ways, I’ve done that with the characters already. It will be interesting to see how accurately I interpreted the clues in this book.

Did the story work? Did Julie get away with doing something different?

Even though it’s long, I loved the book and devoured it almost non-stop. For once, the head hopping didn’t bother me, because it was necessary. The sections inside the killer’s mind are gruesome, but I felt they were needed to heighten the sense that it was important that Fletcher solve the crimes before he struck again. It’s not pretty being inside the mind of an evil man, but this is a rare case in a whodunit where I think it is necessary. Not for the graphic details but to see the extreme version where charm is harmful.

It’s not an easy read. If you want a light-hearted book about two special agents catching a serial killer with lots of graphic sex, read the Cut and Run series.

In some ways, the realtioship between the two men reminded me of Dan and Vadim in Special Forces. But whereas that, too, was a story about a man with irresistible charm and another more dour and introspective, Albert is not Vadim. He’s more aware of and sympathetic to the fact that Ash has changed over time.
And even in Fletcher had been there, the fire of him all but irresistible, Albert would still have been wholly unsure how to respond. All he could do was watch that relentless happy optimism of Fletcher’s die. All Albert could do was hope this wasn’t revenge,
This isn’t a romance, but it is a love story. Not romantic love but deeper, more meaningful love.
“One of the reasons I love you,” he finally said slowly, “is that you always insist on me doing my best. We both know how often I fall short of the mark but on the important things, you insist and I try.”
Trust and respect mean more than the three easy words. In this case, two simple words broke through the barriers he’d erected
”It’s necessary.
I’m so glad others who have read this story liked it and appreciated it.