Only Make Believe – Elliott Mackle (Lethe Press)

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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.

Reviewed by Jerry L. Wheeler

©, 2013, Jerry L. Wheeler

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