Whistling in the Dark
When was the last time you read a romance set in the earliest days of the Jazz Age? Whistling in the Dark not only features an unusual setting but two heroes who face ordinary struggles such as keeping a family business afloat. I also loved the insight into the earliest days of radio, before the first licensed radio stations were born, when people could put together their own broadcasts with spare parts, patience, and luck. Because it’s about ordinary people living their lives and trying to get by, at times, it has a more leisurely pace than some books, but it still kept me reading. If I care about the characters, I want to find out if they will succeed.
While Sutton Albright comes from a wealthy family, a World War I injury destroyed his chances for a career as a pianist, and an affair with a teacher got him kicked out of college. With barely enough money to scrape by, and unable to face his family, he finds himself working at a restaurant in New York City. Next door lives Jack Bailey, who struggles to keep open his parents’ business after their death. While Jack is a rascal, he is living with emotional wounds from the war. Because of economic troubles brought on by the war, Jack also faces the failure of his family’s store, and even worse, he may not be able to repay a loan to a local gangster in time. Desperate for anything, Jack is trying to use radio to garner interest in the store, at a time when few people have even heard of advertising on the radio. When he hears Sutton play the store’s piano, he knows he has just what he needs. But will the crowds Sutton attracts be enough to save the store?
Sutton learns Jack is also gay early on, but the road to a relationship is realistically difficult. Although thrown together into similar circumstances, they are opposites in many ways. Sutton comes from a well-to-do family in Topeka, and Jack grew up in and around his parents’ store, except for a few years on the wrong side of the law. He knows where the best parties are, while Sutton knows which fork to use at a fancy dinner. Jack does play the “What does he see in me?” card a few times, but it doesn’t get in the way. Jack also gets a little jealous a few times, but not in the chest-pounding way of so many romance heroes. Instead, he often fears his company won’t be enough to keep Sutton interested as Sutton is part of the opera set rather than the jazz set.
Sutton, on the other hand, has to face the truth about his affair with the teacher before he can realize what a real relationship has to offer. Their relationship is far from explicit. This book might be a good choice for someone who wants to read a male/male romance without explicit sex. While the characters do have sex, it’s never described explicitly, concentrating on kisses and emotions instead of body parts. Also, while Jack has had many partners in the past, meeting someone he really cares about cures him of that. He only has one brief encounter with someone else, and that’s before he and Sutton become physical.
Whistling in the Dark doesn’t stint on the dangers gay men faced during the Jazz Age. Early on, Sutton meets Jack because they are thrown into prison together – Sutton is arrested for simply listening to a man’s proposition, without meaning to accept it. Later on, the lonely Sutton accepts an invitation to a party where he might meet fellow gays, only to be beaten up badly. Tamara Allen also shows the other side, such as the scandalous and yet charming parties held by Jack’s friend, Theo. At these parties, Sutton even encounters new types of music. For music is an important part of the story. For a while, Sutton isn’t sure he will be able to play again – he hasn’t tried for months. It’s a huge part of his life, as natural to him as shaving. Meanwhile, in clubs all around the big city, a new sound is being created – a scandalous type of music called jazz. It entrances Sutton, but it scares many others with its improvisation and rhythms. Rags and other popular songs of this era also figure strongly. Jack has an ear for which music will draw his customers in, so if you like popular music of this era, you might want to tune into this story.
History is very much a part of this book. Everyone has been affected by the war in some way. Jack can’t buy stock for his store because imports are still so hard to come by, so that makes it even harder to stay afloat. Most of the people in this story are just getting by, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to have fun. After all, alcohol will soon be illegal, so there’s a lot of drinking to be done in a short time. You’ll also learn a lot about the early days of radio, but Tamara Allen avoids bogging it down with boring detail. As someone who used to own a shortwave receiver, it was great to learn about what Jack had to go through to start broadcasting. In one scene, Sutton learns that people from faraway places send postcards to Jack to let him know they were able to pick up his station. For me, this was a blast because I remember reading about this practice in shortwave radio magazines – the listeners were doing what’s known as “DXing,” and they were trying to get “QSLs” from the station. Reading this book made me want to find my old radio and try to tune into the BBC again. Imagine a time when radio stations were so rare that you could write a station to tell them that you’d heard them at a particular time, and they would write back to you as a courtesy.
Add to this a cast of supportive friends, menacing gangsters, pianists, singers, eccentrics, a cranky restaurant owner, and even an elderly crocodile, and you have a book that demonstrates both the dangers and the delights of a bygone era, yet an era not entirely different from our own. They have radio and telephones and movies, but they have to jiggle the switch hook on the phone, and the movies are still silent. It was a time when police raided parties, when jazz was brand new, when people went to the “picture show” and could eat at the automat if it was too late to go out, and when the dangers of the war still replayed in some young men’s heads nightly.
A common complaint from romance readers is that there is nothing new or different out there. If you’re open to reading an M/M romance, you might find just the sort of variety and history missing from more mainstream stories.