Title: It Takes Two
Author: Elliott Mackle
Cover art: Niki Smith
Publisher: Lethe Press
Buy link: It Takes Two: A Novel
Length: Novel/190 PDF pages/83,000 words
Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5
A guest review by LadyM
Review summary: Exceptional historical details and engaging narrator balance out somewhat uneven narrative
Blurb: February, 1949. Fort Myers, Florida. It started out to be such a nice day. But early morning gunfire at the Royal Plaza Motor Hotel changed all that. One white man is dead. One black man is dead. The white man’s widow has just crashed the investigation and is waving a gun around. Dan Ewing, who isn’t supposed to be there, barely escapes getting shot. Saving his bacon is Lee County detective Bud Wright. Dan and Bud are more than just fishing buddies. But that’s one secret of many in this small town. Dan is the manager of the Caloosa Hotel, a class act if you’re just passing through, but a provider of card games, call girls, mixed drinks and other special “services” for members of the ultra-private Caloosa Club. This doesn’t sit well with everyone in town, including a wealthy car dealer, the KKK, and Bud Wright, despite the fact that he’s sleeping with Dan. But the car dealer is the dead white man, the black man is the husband of his wife’s former maid, and the sheriff, Bud’s boss, seems determined to steer the investigation off track. So what does the apparent murder-suicide have to do with the Caloosa? Former journalist Elliott Mackle takes this wonderfully realized “why-done-it” to fascinating levels as he explores the various factions of a small southern town facing the giant implications of a rapidly changing society in the postwar years.
Before starting this book, you should have one thing in mind:
“Florida in the late 1940s was a model of Old Testament intolerance in matters sexual, political and social.”
This means that if you are not prepared to leave your contemporary sensibilities aside, you might not enjoy this book. Set in racially segregated, post-war Florida, the book perfectly reflects the attitudes of the period, though not all the characters do.
Having said this, the historical accuracy and diversity of the characters are the two strongest points of this novel. Whether they are the war veterans returning to mostly unchanged America, war widows forced to struggle for survival, corrupt local authorities and businessmen, members of the KKK, performers, people of color or gay men and women trying to carve a safe place for themselves in an unfriendly world, they represent a colorful background for the love story between Dan Ewing and Bud Wright. My personal favorite was Carmen Veranda, a drag queen who entertained the American soldiers during the war. Carmen is in a long-term relationship with Tommy, a black pianist and secret political activist, and an epitome of personal courage.
Dan Ewing is a war veteran back from service in occupied Japan, where he survived the sinking of USS Indianapolis and death of his lover. He manages the upscale Caloosa Hotel and its private Club which provides gambling, drinking and companionship for various customers. He is our first-person narrator and a truly fascinating character. While reading the book he often reminded me of Casablanca’s Rick. He is a curious mixture of cynicism in dealing with his business (including obviously dubious “protection”) and idealism in his private life. His personal philosophy seems to be “live and let live” and he is not averse to bending a few laws if it provides a living or protection to his employees, no matter who they are. He suffers from PTSD and his war experiences, including almost miraculous finding and later loss of true love, color many of his actions. It is not a surprise that, when he finds Bud, he is willing to go to great lengths to keep him.
“I might have said there’s nothing more natural and less degenerate than sleeping next to the person you care about. But I was no crusader. I was just a man who’d run out of luck during the war, a guy who’d found out what he wanted the hard way, and who’d learned that he’d better go after it again when the going seemed right.“
Bud Wright, an ex-Marine, is a police detective with far fewer scars from the war. Straitlaced, honest and loyal, Bud is much more conflicted about his attraction to Dan. He is bisexual with a stronger attraction to men and is convinced that he could leave that life if he chooses to. The affair with Dan starts as a fulfillment of Bud’s teenage fantasy – his attraction to his high-school coach – but the deepening of their mutual emotions is what scares Bud to death, since he doesn’t believe that a relationship is even possible. The relationship is pretty much one step forward, two steps back, especially when both of them get involved in the death of two men – one white, the other black – and some of the clues lead to Caloosa. His reticence, paranoia, prejudices and constant stepping in and out of the closet (to the selected few, mind you, there are no really out people at this time) are sometimes hard to take, but it is through Bud’s character that we truly see what the life of gay people was like and what consequences they could face just because they were living their lives. There is something incredibly sad in a grown, strong man who is constantly afraid.
The mystery, such as it is, is more a device to showcase the political and social circumstances of the time and its resolution is rather lukewarm, considering the potential bomb the death of two men – one black, one white – could become. It is also somewhat lost in the narrative that jumps back and forth from past to present. The uneven pacing and some lines (such as the first one quoted in this review) suggest that Dan narrated the story at some later date and pulled me occasionally out of the story. While the chemistry between the two protagonists is palpable and the somewhat awkward sex scenes and raw dialogue added to the authenticity, I wasn’t completely convinced of Bud’s commitment at the end of the novel. As Dan says:
“Mixing it up isn’t a relationship, Sarge. But two people who get together and plan to stay together, however they can do it, and who say they care about each other a lot, maybe even, you know, love each other, that’s a relationship. And it takes two—the two of us working at it.”
Luckily for me (and the readers who feel/will feel the same), Dan and Bud are back in the sequel – Only Make Believe – which will be reviewed here in two days.
Overall, It Takes Two is an exceptional historical novel with wonderful characters which could have benefited from some focus and streamlining. It’s easy to see why it was a Lambda Literary Award finalist and I recommend that you try it, whether you are a fan of historical novels or not.