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The Pitiful Player (A Nick Williams Mystery) (Volume 14) Paperback – September 12, 2017
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"Another awesome read... Reading these stories I really feel like I'm sitting there... I hope there will be a hundred more stories to come." -- Goodreads reviewer "Elith"
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Book fourteen in the series should be known as the L.A. book, even though the action starts in Mexico. The focus of the plot is what’s supposed to be a quick trip to Los Angeles to check up on the progress that Ben White and Carlo Martinelli are making in the movie business…another thing funded by Nick and Carter. What ensues is the murder of a young actor, and the false arrest of Carlo for that murder. Our San Francisco boys end up settling down in L.A. for longer than they anticipated, and begin to fully appreciate the consequences of being the most famous homosexuals in the world.
What Butterfield does so well is bringing in bits and pieces of real history that create a context for the fiction that brings it to life. I loved the presence of Rosalind Russell and her husband, real folks presented as they were in 1955 Beverly Hills—before Russell’s second big career jump with “Auntie Mame” which didn’t happen until 1958. It makes sense that they become friends of Nick and Carter, indeed have been friends since an earlier book. Their mutual friendship with Billy Haines, 1920s movie star who refused to be closeted and avenged himself by becoming Hollywood’s top decorator, is also used very neatly in the story in a way that builds the plot, but also tells us something about post-McCarthy Hollywood. There’s even a fascinating plot point linked to early computers, reminding us how very far we’ve come technologically since the 1950s, when modern computers were first born.
Butterfield has gotten very comfortable with his story-weaving, and there are particular moments here that are truly moving, as both our heroes and the people around them talk about what it means to be openly queer (the word gay hasn’t been coined yet) in a hostile world, when even a vast fortune can’t protect you from injustice when it’s supported by the legal system. There’s a significant gap between tolerance and acceptance, and the exploration of that gap in the course of this novel sets off all sorts of echoes that resonate with the peculiar politics of 2017.
At the core of it all is this amazing couple, the rejected rich boy from Nob Hill, and the refugee country boy from Albany, Georgia. The sailor and the fireman. They continue to be superheroes to me—gay men who found each other and have empowered each other in the face of endless obstacles. The power of their money can only go so far, and the strain on their souls shows itself in touching ways. It is their love, for each other and for those around them, that is their real superpower. The catalyst these two have been in terms of their families continues to astound me as I read the unfolding saga that forms the backdrop of this series. The isolation of gay people in the bad old days was the chief weapon that our nation used against them. Nick and Carter have shattered that isolation in these books, and in their fantasy we can see how the gay liberation movement was born.
Just as a side note: the very last chapter of the book, the Epilogue, takes place on the day I was born, July 22, 1955. From here on in, Nick and Carter’s adventures take place in my lifetime. Ponder that.
The historical setting of the book – the early 1950s – made for interesting and sometimes painful moments as Nick and Carter confront the homophobia of the time. It helps that Nick is apparently wealthy as Croesus, so the hatred he and his cronies encounter never gets worse than vague threats. The use of real historical figures was very entertaining. Rosalind Russell, Hedda Hopper, Errol Flynn and many other Hollywood icons are namechecked or even become involved in the plot to some degree.
My takeaway (based solely on this one book) is that recounting the day-to-day life of a gay couple in the 1950s (albeit an extremely rich couple) is the point. For me, the mystery wasn’t so much solved as abandoned. I liked Nick and Carter a lot and many of the peripheral characters. I’m interested now in going back to read the first book in the series, and possibly Enchanted Evening which, I believe, is the story of how Nick and Carter met.
This time out, the guys are in Hollywood, where a friend has been accused of a crime nobody believes he committed. That murder mystery serves to drive the story, but it isn’t the reason you’ll enjoy this entry into Mr. Butterfield’s reliably fun series. With cameos from several big name stars of 1955 and a soundtrack of popular tunes, Nick, Carter and the gang at Consolidated Security maneuver their way through a charity ball, a murder, several unhelpful and unfriendly law enforcement officers, and a surprising family development.
To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say this: buy the book. It’s a quick read, and there are many memorable and moving scenes. I'm looking forward to book 15!
A clever and intriguing mystery with just enough threads left untied to lead into a book 15.