Title: Only Make Believe
Author: Elliott Mackle
Cover art: Niki Smith
Publisher: Lethe Press
Buy link: Only Make Believe: A Novel
Length: Novel/178 PDF pages/73,000 words
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
A guest review by LadyM
Review summary: Excellent sequel to It Takes Two.
Blurb: It’s amateur night at the ultra-private, members-only Caloosa Club on the Fort Myers, Florida, riverfront. Trouble begins when the fat lady sings. Her triumph is sweet. But, only hours later, the diva lies near death in a hotel room upstairs, the victim of a vicious beating. Hotel manager Dan Ewing and his sidekick, Lee County Detective Bud Wright, soon discover that this was no lady and that a variety of unsavory characters hoped to dance on the dead diva’s grave. In Southwest Florida in January 1951, almost anyone who wanted to have a little illicit fun put his—or her—life on the line.
Dan, a World War II veteran who survived Japanese torpedoes, five days on a life raft and the death of his Navy lover, feels he’s found more safety and freedom than any gay man might expect. Dealing cards, serving untaxed mixed drinks and selling the services of escorts of both sexes, he acts as if he has nothing to lose. Yet he does. Bud, his secret lover, is a former Marine sergeant twice decorated for valor. Strong and brave but deeply conventional, he lives with the uneasy knowledge that every time he and Dan make love they commit a felony according to the laws he is sworn to uphold.
The Caloosa, exposed to the pitiless glare of a front-page homicide investigation, attracts unwanted attention. The mounting pressure, instead of forging a stronger bond between Dan and Bud, threatens to tear them apart. As the jeopardy to both escalates, Dan realizes he may lose the one man who holds the key to the peace and harmony of his postwar world.
Only Make Believe is a sequel to Mackle’s novel It Takes Two reviewed here. It’s set two years after the events in the first book.
American soldiers are dying again – this time in the Korean War. Dan Ewing is still managing Caloosa and its notorious Club. He is still “mixing it up” with Bud Wright, detective working part-time for the County, part-time for the hotel. Mackle opens the novel with the amateur night in the Caloosa. It is clear that Dan is content with his life and that he and Bud have settled into their secret relationship. But, Dan’s distraction causes him to miss the potential problem and when murder of one of his guests – a male guest in drag – occurs, the attention the hotel and the two men get brings all their problems, especially Bud’s uncertainties, to the surface.
Compared to the first novel, Only Make Believe is better structured and the writing style is cleaner, more fluid, making this book easier to read. While the historical accuracy and colorful secondary characters I liked so much in the first book are still strong, this novel focuses more on the murder investigation and our two protagonists. This allowed the author to better develop some of their character traits only hinted in the previous book, which made me care for them and enjoy the book more.
The progress of the investigation shows just how precarious the position of gay men was during this period. Even the people who are aware of at least some of Caloosa’s secrets and are considered friends start turning their backs on Dan and Bud as they inevitably look into their lives. The hate mail, vandalism, attention from the press, even attacks provoke different things in our two heroes. Dan is determined to discover the murderer not least because of the indignities the victim and his family are forced to endure in the aftermath of the attack. The injustice is even more obvious when he compares the destinies of a womanizing embezzler caught in the hotel and the cross-dressing Nicholas DiGennaro – one “hardly blushed”, the other one is dead. All of this provokes Dan to action, bringing his protective, reckless and manipulative sides to the fore. Bud, on the other hand, is reminded of his every – very realistic – fear. His reaction is to try to distance himself, not from investigation but from Dan. He seeks the possible exits in his former “beard” and his military past – because the things are simpler and safer that way. It was heartbreaking to read about his struggle as much as it was heart-wrenching to see Dan fighting to convince him to not give up on them.
“We’re not quitting anything. We’re a pair. We’re an army of two. The admiral’s on our side, him and his investors. The sheriff is taken care of, whatever he says.They’re not—we’re not—gonna let the hypocritical bastards defeat us. I love you, goddamn it. Don’t you know that?”
It takes all Dan’s determination and Bud’s courage to stick together and the scene in which they get on the same page was beautiful and it brought me to tears.
Another aspect of the novel that worked well was the men’s relationship with the victim’s teenage son Chuck. Dan sees the youth of his lovers in him, Bud – the possibility of fatherhood. The men provide understanding, advice and assistance to the hurt and confused young man and a little window to the world outside Fort Myers.
The resolution of an otherwise solid mystery was a little over-the-top and unrealistic. My other complaint has more to do with my romantic nature than with any real book’s flaw. In spite of a satisfactory ending and definite progress in the men’s relationship, it remains clear that Bud is not free of his doubts and fears and that Dan would always be the more solid and more determined one. I wholeheartedly hope that this means we will get more Dan and Bud in the future.
Like the first book, Only Make Believe is an excellent mixture of history, mystery and love story, although personally I prefer this one. I strongly advise you to pick up both books. This one is highly recommended.