Corpora Delicti is the 9th and so far most recent part in Manna Francis' The Administration series (aka TA). I guess most of my followers here are unfamiliar with it, therefore I'll use the first part's blurb as a short introduction:
There are no bad guys or good guys. There are only better guys and worse guys. One of the worse guys is Val Toreth. In a world in which torture is a legitimate part of the investigative process, he works for the Investigation and Interrogation Division, where his colleagues can be more dangerous than the criminals he investigates. One of the better guys is Keir Warrick. His small corporation, SimTech, is developing a "sim" system that places users in a fully immersive virtual reality. A minnow in a murky and dangerous pond, he is only beginning to discover how many compromises may be required for success. Their home is the dark future dystopia of New London. A totalitarian bureaucracy controls the European Administration, sharing political power with the corporations. The government uses violence and the many divisions of the feared Department of Internal Security to maintain control and crush resistance. The corporations fight among themselves, using lethal force under the euphemism of "corporate sabotage," uniting only to resist attempts by the Administration to extend its influence over them. Toreth and Warrick are more natural enemies than allies. But mutual attraction and the fight for survival can create unlikely bonds.
My love for this series knows no bounds, and it makes me a bit sad that, outside a group of hardcore fans, it's relatively unknown. It's often called m/m romance or slash, but those labels give a rather false impression. I'd describe The Administration as political thrillers set in a dark dystopia, an all-too-plausible world with all-too-plausible characters; an intricate mix of police procedural, soap opera-like family gatherings, foodporn, and porn-porn, with a heavy dose of the best and most realistic pansexual BDSM I've read up to this date. Unfortunately, this mix is somewhat of a niche product; the BDSM could scare off fans of police procedural, and people looking for juicy m/m action could be disappointed by the sometimes really dry procedural parts. And who wants to read corporate dystopias in this day and age anyway, when the real thing is waiting just outside the door?
So, yeah, somewhat of a niche product. But a very, very good one.
Corpora Delicti wasn't the most exciting adventure for our boys Toreth and Warrick. After a time of political unrest and personal challenges, they find themselves sharing a flat and dealing with the aftermath of a revolt that almost destroyed the Administration and their relationship. While Toreth has do deal with a case of, at first glance, quite boring white collar crime, Warrick wants to find answers to a personal question tormenting him. Although Toreth's case turns out to be a lot more murderous and complex than it seemed, and Warrick's stupid moves could endanger his life, the professional threats in this volume are rather low-level – especially compared to the emotional intensity of #6, First Against the Wall, and #7, Family Values.
Meanwhile, their relationship not only stagnates, but seems to make steps backwards. This has never been a conventional romance, it has never been a healthy relationship, but here even I felt like screaming: „Warrick, please get the fuck out!“ It's mostly Toreth – unfaithful, but deadly jealous - being a careless jerk, and Warrick putting up with it because his pet-torturer is the only one who can give him what he needs, the sense of losing control. Warrick gets off on fear (Francis is uncommonly explicit about this fact here), and Toreth provides the edge of real danger. And of course he is good at their game; he knows what to do because he tortures people for a living, a fact Warrick conveniently ignores most of the time. He's tiptoeing around Toreth, trying not to provoke him, constantly finding excuses for his bad behaviour – and if that doesn't ring all warning bells, then I don't know what's fucking wrong with you, but at some moments in this book the relationship skipped into the actual abusive. The repeat performance with Sara, Toreth's admin, is just the bitter icing on the cake. But just when I've begun to hate him - and such is the brilliance of Manna Francis - I'm back alone with Toreth and realize once again that he lacks the emotional maturity for any kind of meaningful relationship, is too disconnected from his own feelings to understand what others could possibly be experiencing. He's violent, he's dangerous, and Francis is careful not to glorify or romantisize his behaviour – and yet he's all too easy to like (if you're me, that is).
Analysing the relationship and analysing Toreth is half the fun when reading these books. Is he a sociopath or is he not? I don't think he is, although he displays signs of antisocial behaviour patterns. I've recently learned about alexithymia, and it seems to fit Toreth quite well. Maybe with the exception of „scarcity of fantasies“, because he's not lacking imagination when it comes to developing kinky scenarios for Warrick.
Stories and relationships in TA often make me feel uncomfortable. As far as I am concerned, that's one of the greatest qualities of the series, together with Manna Francis' crisp and clear prose, the realistic dialogue, and her outstanding character development. While Corpora Delicti was less intense than some of its predecessors, on this account it didn't disappoint. Most of all, it feels like an inbetween-book, setting up higher stakes for the next sequel; first through the meddling of one powerful and oh-so-very annoying Administration division, and secondly through not only rising tension between our boys, but with introducing possible competition for Toreth in form of a new co-worker for Warrick, who happens to be just his type and a lot saner and safer and less frustrating than torture-boy. I hope one day we will see how that plays out.
Given the subject matter, this series comes with all kind of content warnings, most importantly for torture and sexual violence/rape. It's rarely very explicit, but I find the implications to be even worse. Well, this is no pleasant world, these aren't pleasant characters, and while the books are very, very good, they are not exactly light-hearted.