Whistling in the dark by Tamara Allen – Review

Rating: 9.5/10 ★★★★★★★★★½ Title: Whistling in the Dark
Author: Tamara Allen
Historical Romance (early Twentieth century)

NB: Book has been rereleased through Lethe Press and is available at allromanceebooks.com for $6.40

Other Information/warnings: Violence
Summary [from the publisher]:
New York, 1919. His career as a concert pianist ended by a war injury, Sutton Albright returns to college, only to be expelled after an affair with a teacher. Unable to face his family, he heads to New York with no plans and little money—only a desire to call his life his own.
Jack Bailey’s life has changed as well. After losing his parents in the influenza epidemic, he hopes to save their beloved novelty shop—now his—by advertising on the radio, barely more than a novelty, itself. Sutton lands work in Jack’s corner of the city and the two conclude they couldn’t be less suited for friendship. But when Sutton loses his job, Jack gives him a place to stay.

My review:
Here at Uniquely Pleasurable, we don’t get many self-published books sent to us to review, and I have to say, those we do are clearly self-published for a reason. So when Ms Allen sent me her novel, I had no expectations at all. But then I read the first 40 pages, and had to dash off an email to her asking, “why the hell was this self-published? This is brilliant!” She said it was turned down by a publisher I thought would love it, apparently, and other publishers wanted more sex (which would be quite inappropriate for the story.) I have no explanation for that decision other than a mass break out of sheer and utter insanity, because the fact is, Whistling in the Dark is one hell of a lovely book. Possibly one of the best m/m books I’ve ever read. Definitely the sweetest, most engaging romance I’ve ever read.

I don’t even like historical m/m novels, because they’re usually set when homosexuality was a crime punishable with severe penalties. Since the story opens with Sutton being picked up (wrongly) for public indecency and forced to spend the night in a police cell, it’s clear the author doesn’t intend to gloss over real world consequences. But even so, I loved this story and am torn between shouting about it from the virtual rooftops and getting you all to buy it, and sitting down and reading it all over again, even though I really don’t have time for that right now.

Let me tell you about the bad points of this novel.

Right, now let me tell you about the good points. In short, everything.

The writing is engaging, well-edited and literate. The author gives us a lovely feel for New York a few months before the start of Prohibition, with so many young men back from the War to End all Wars, and a society still terrified by the ongoing flu pandemic which took millions of lives. Yet she does so lightly and deftly, so we never feel we’re being subjected to a history lesson, but rather a peek into the real lives of real people. She skilfully gives us a wealth of period detail, along with dialogue that is both natural and authentic. Even without the characters and the plot, this novel would stand out for the handling of its setting.

But the characters and the plot are also masterly. We are introduced to Sutton and Jack, so very different in background and approach, but both broken and grieving after their war experiences (and for Jack, losing his parents in the flu epidemic as he was on his way home from France.) Both are delightful. Jack is cocky and brash, broke, charming, queer – and suffering shell-shock, with crippling insomnia and nightmares. Sutton, one of nature’s true gentlemen, his dreams of a musical career dashed by injury and shame, emerges from his privileged cocoon and the rejection he faced when his sexual proclivities were discovered, and finds his true place in the precarious yet engaging world of Jack’s emporium and his fledgling radio shows. He too has scars from the war, more than he even realises. It’s a reminder of what terrible things we do to young men when we send them abroad to kill and see others killed.

The story’s a bit country mouse and city mouse, for sure, but it’s not belaboured, and the growth happens for both of them, as does the healing. This is a story about friendship, and love between friends, as much as that between lovers. The other characters shine with goodness and their own quirky natures – Harry, the emporium’s manager, acting in loco parentis to the unstable and perpetually indebted Jack; Ox, their faithful and sweet-natured man of all work; Esther, the waitress who gives Sutton his first break, and comes to play an important role in their lives; Theo, the doyen of the gay scene, falling in and out of love with ease, but with always with a good heart; Gert, the gangster’s sister with more than enough charm to make her way without him; and even Woodrow, the five-foot long crocodile who lives in the yard and makes importunate and ill-timed appearances in the store, but whom no one can bear to get rid of. They’re all part of a vividly drawn, tightly woven web of relationships which sustain and enrich those within them. The employees and friends of the emporium intersect with the criminal underclass, and the secret but vibrant world of gay New Yorkers, skating under the law’s attention and looking for love wherever they can and with whoever will have them. An unfamiliar world comes alive, where the characters aren’t actors in a movie set, but living, breathing humans we come to care about, and remember.

The plot is on one hand a straightforward tale of a young man finding fame and love, and on the other, a story about loss, sorrow and dealing with the horrors of war. True love doesn’t fix everything, and Jack and Sutton have to deal with the horrors in their past before they can hope to build a life for themselves and with each other. It sounds trite, writing it out like that, but I swear, this is not a trite book, or a simple romance. There’s so many layers here, so many subtle themes and resonances. I need to read it a few more times to extract them fully.

The pace is sprightly, and the twisting and turning plot kept my interest all the way through. The dialogue is realistic, often funny, and never sappy. No mushy declarations here, or weeping lovers. Just manly men with fragile souls and brave hearts, women who are friends and sisters and as sympathetically drawn as our heroes, and villains who are all too believable in their petty greed and jealousy.

This is the kind of novel I keep looking for, and so rarely find. It’s a love story without sap or even overt sexual content, while still keeping the sexual tension high. It expects the reader to be intelligent and never talks down to them, has a tight plot and characters that you could imagine sitting down and sharing a Manhattan with. There’s redemption and tension and plenty of humour to leaven it with. Honestly, what on earth are publishers thinking of to turn this gem away?

Don’t make the same mistake. Grab this now. Whistling in the Dark is a real, honest to goodness keeper. Highly and unreservedly recommended.