Only Make Believe – Elliott Mackle (Lethe Press)

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Buy it direct from Lethe Press

I’m a bit late on this release, as it’s been out since
August of last year, but I’m a fan of both Mackle’s Captain Harding books, so
I’d been looking forward to diving into this one for some time, especially as
it reprises the main characters of It Takes Two, Dan Ewing and Bud
Wright. And Mackle proves to be as solidly dependable as ever.

Dan Ewing runs the Caloosa Hotel, an adventurous
establishment for those looking for carousing, cards and camaderie of the
alternative sort. Along with his closeted boyfriend, Bud Wright, Lee County
detective and former Marine, they provide northern Florida the finest in
debauchery 1951 has to offer. Their cozy routine, however, is interrupted by
the brutal murder of an amateur drag queen named Diva Capri in the hotel. They
must solve the case or risk scrutiny and possible shutdown by the local
government.

Mackle has a knack for characters in the military (and
ex-military) world, and Ewing and Wright are no exception. Furtive encounters,
secrecy, deception and the constant fear of being found out suffuse the
atmosphere of his books, and he’s a master of this type of tension. Add to that
the tension inherent in his tightly-wound plots, and you have a winning
combination.

Mackle’s prose—as well as his dialogue—is very purposeful.
There’s not much window dressing in it, but that’s not to say that it’s spare
or thin. Rather, it’s very lean and muscular. What’s there serves the plot or
the character, which is as it should be. Despite this, I always had a firm
sense of place. I could smell the warm Florida breeze as well as I could the
Diva’s Joy perfume.

But even above all these things, I got the same sense of
history from this book as I did in It Takes Two. Needless to say, being
gay in 1951 is entirely different from being gay today, and Mackle never misses
a step of authenticity. Not one anachronistic thought or movement. It’s total
immersion, and it’s marvelous.

That said, I’d also like to see Mackle step out of that time
and apply his considerable skills to something a bit more contemporary.
However, that’s minor carping on my part. These characters and books are
engaging in their own right, and if Mackle spends the rest of his career on
them, we’re all the richer for it.

And, hopefully, so is he. 

©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

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