REVIEW: Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen
Dear Ms Allen,
I had heard high praise for your novel, “Whistling in the Dark,” after my initial foray into m/m stories. And I’d actually bought a copy of the book in its previous form though I hadn’t read it yet. So, when you offered the new and improved version to us for review, I decided it was time for me to get off my lazy butt and actually read the darn thing.
It’s post war New York City and everything is changing. Old conventions are being abandoned for the bright new possibilities as flappers bob their hair and raise their hemlines. People can actually buy a newfangled contraption called a radio and listen to music in their homes. Sleek cars cruise the streets and wild parties take place on rooftops. Jazz fills nightclubs and people are hurrying to buy up booze before Prohibition finally goes into effect. The city that never sleeps has something for everyone. You just have to know where to look.
But for Sutton Albright, New York is a last resort. He could go home to the family empire in Topeka but after what he was expelled from college for doing, the shame would embarrass his family. So he pawns most of what he owns and gratefully takes a job in a diner. It’s here, while delivering meals across the street to an eclectic mix of people, that he finally finds a home.
I love the way you slowly shade in the characters over the course of the story much like an artist adding depth to the outlines of a drawing instead of info dumping on us. It takes a little while to fully understand the people and the places, the relationships and the history but the end result is worth the wait. The trip there is something to be savored.
Information is delicately revealed about gay life in New York but never with a heavy hand. There’s a little about the anonymity of the baths, quick encounters that don’t last, rendezvous that aren’t kept, the lack of commitment. How men will marry to hide their sexual inclinations and blend into society and the danger of being found out. The hedonistic parties where anything, including public sex, goes. The beginning of the flapper age and jazz – which is a revelation to Sutton.
I love Theo the hopeless romantic who thinks “there’s someone for everyone. Even us.”
“We all live two lives, ” Miles said. “Well, most of us.” His smile at Theo was fully affectionate. “After your dad’s chased you off with a shotgun, pretense is pointless thereafter.” Theo grinned toothily.
But it’s Theo who figures out how to permanently deal with the man who preyed on Sutton – and all with only a little violence – which I feel they were entirely within the bounds of reason to exact on the man.
Gert ain’t no dumb blond no matter how she talks. Despite her sympathy and generous deeds to further Ox and Esther’s romance, she’s still very much Gert first with an eye to what will help her. I thought her ultimate game plan very much a product of the times and something that fit her personality like a glove.
It was a time of great social change and upheaval – jazz, flappers, increasing independence for women, radio, the coming of prohibition. I like the use of the Albright siblings to show this to us, the readers. Instead of just reciting these things as a backdrop, you make them come alive as Sutton and later his sister, Mary, experience them. The scene of the Albright children fondly remembering childhood events was nice and shows that their older brother isn’t entirely a stuffed shirt.
Both Sutton and Jack have had previous relationships – both are secretly hoping for something longer lasting, something more emotionally satisfying, yet neither dares to really think that he might have found something long lasting. Sutton’s former lover, David is sort of a cardboardish antagonist. I guess he’s used to show how Sutton has matured in his handling of relationships, as well as being a test of how much Sutton wants to stay with Jack.
Does Jack believe that he’ll go to hell for his sexual proclivities? His pronouncement to Sutton about when he wandered through NYC after getting home and finding his parents dead makes me think so.
There’s a lovely period feel even though, as I said, book isn’t loaded down with exhaustive descriptions of people, places and things. You don’t go overboard on period words – a few “swells” here and there – but the speech conveys the time more by lack of general swearing and modern terms than any thing else. I loved the touches such as the brief mention of what would have been a recent play – Pygmalion. The horrible toll of the flu pandemic is shown merely by the mention of the deaths of Jack’s parents and his reaction to one of the few Health Department posters detailing what had turned out to be useless ways to avoid the contagion.
The after effects of war on the characters is also shown with a light touch. The hypervigilence at night, the times when Jack gets overtaken by the need to hide, the instances when he’s afraid to discover if he’s at home dreaming of the war or in France dreaming he’s home, the memories Sutton has repressed until one night he remembers. We get glimpses of what Sutton, Jack and Mary’s fiance John Campbell endured. Since these men have barely begun to examine the issues themselves, it’s understandable that they’re not going to go into full fledged psychoanalytical mode – but when mention is made of that, it is believable since Freud’s lectures would have been known by then.
I like that the characters don’t stay static. It’s obvious that changes are ahead for them all. Ox and Es look to be getting married soon, Harry and Opal might have something going, Gert, Chase and Ned are all headed for Hollywood – even if it is mainly a way for the men to get away from the law.
The details of early radio broadcasting are fascinating. How loose and “by-the-seat-of-the-pants” the whole thing was. Music – either live or via victrola, weather reports, ads, singing, whatever. How amazing it was to these people to be able to hear all this in their homes and not only local stations but even those several states distance away.
While I loved the friends who gather in the emporium, after a while, they all just seemed too happy family, too accepting of everyone’s little foibles and flaws. Gert discovers that her flirting with Jack is pointless since he’s gay? No worries, she won’t expose his secret to Chase or Ned who could use it to destroy Jack. Harry finds out Jack has blown what little money he has? Not a problem since Harry is such a lovable stand-in parent who’ll hand over his last penny and offer his apartment as a place for Jack and Sutton to live if the emporium is lost. Sutton has sunk to poverty after being tossed out of school because he can’t face his family finding out about his sexual orientation yet when the family finally does appear – they either accept him without any signs of disgust or seem to agree to tolerate him. Which sort of negates the whole drama and set up of most of the book.
And I’m not sure of reason for Woodrow. There’s enough color and quaint charm to the story without a live crocodile thrown into the mix.
Yet despite the often cocooned feeling of acceptance within the emporium of the characters’ homosexuality, you do make sure we remember there’s always the lurking danger of them being caught out. We see it from the very beginning when Sutton is wrongly arrested on charges of degeneracy. This is followed by the robbery after he’s lured out by a man preying on homosexuals, who counts on his victims remaining silent to cover their own actions. And the number of nightclubs they’re thrown out of when the men attempt to dance together. It might appear to be an okay gay world but it really isn’t.
Jack goes all noble in the end which didn’t feel quite right. He’s spent the entire book basically getting his way – through smiles and charm – then suddenly changes. I guess this is supposed to show how deeply Sutton has affected him. But for me, the emo scene with Harry before the ending dragged a little too much as does the reconciliation. I was kind of expecting something along the lines of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins.
The pace of the book is leisurely but doesn’t drag. Sex is there but often just hinted at. Readers looking for hot erotica will need to head elsewhere. I think this is an m/m book that even people who don’t think they’d like m/m would enjoy. Sure, there are a few issues that keep it from being an A for me but not many. I hope this new version will reach a larger number of people because it certainly deserves to. B+