Friendly Fellers in Florida

Carl Hiaasen territory hijacked in gay detective tale

Such curious creatures live in Florida. Nowhere else in the world do Disney mascots share space with manatees, orchid thieves with rednecks. Mix in a whole bunch of different ethnic backgrounds—from Cuban expatriates to leisure-suited Northerners—and enough colorful characters emerge to inspire libraries worth of literature. To this quirky collection, Miami native Elliott Mackle contributes his first novel, It Takes Two, a 1940s detective yarn peppered with sexual and social themes. The story centers around two young World War II vets. Dan Ewing manages a Fort Myers resort, where a mixed-race staff serves liquor and lovin'' to a swinging clientele. Bud Wright is a local police detective. Dan and Bud are an item, but their relationship is a huge secret, lest the rest of the cops, the Klan, or even Bud''s girlfriend find out. Meanwhile, Bud must unravel the double murder of a black man and a white man found shot together at a sleazy motel. The local gossips have plenty of material. Mackle writes with a straightforward style that honors his journalism background. He''s a former staff writer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is currently chief restaurant reviewer for the alternative weekly Creative Loafing Atlanta. He''s also clearly a fan of novelist Carl Hiaasen, whose darn good reads about Sunshine State-shenanigans include the bestsellers Striptease and Basket Case. Like Hiaasen, Mackle enjoys super-size characters and mysteries set in old-school Florida. Unlike Hiaasen, however, Mackle centers this whodunnit on a gay relationship. Both guys are closeted—it’s the South in the 40’s, remember—but Dan accepts himself and had a longish-term boyfriend while in the service. Tensions mount as Bud struggles to grasp that his feelings for Dan go beyond naked roughhousing. (Smut scene note: plenty of passages in It Takes Two are super-steamy. Folks aroused by the threat of getting caught while sneaking a screw will find It Takes Two particularly tasty.) While Mackle does a solid job tracking Dan and Bud''s relationship, his unfolding of the murder investigation is less successful. The problem is mostly structural. Instead of solving the crime and relationship woes together, the book flip-flops between the two plot lines, with preference paid to the Dan and Bud story. Pages pass without mention of the mystery. Remember Gosford Park? Last year’s Robert Altman movie that was billed as a detective tale but, although it included a lukewarm caper, was actually a period piece about social mores? It’s the same deal with It Takes Two. In addition to his work as a journalist and food critic, Mackle served in the Air Force as an openly gay squadron commander and he descends from a prominent Florida family. (Hiaasen has even based characters in his novels upon Mackle''s father and uncles.) Which means the author writes with authority about his characters'' military backgrounds and the era''s inbred power brokers. We get a good sense of a society just shy of a turning point, in this case the civil rights movement. Mackle lavishes special, sometimes distracting, attention on in-passing mentions of food. When Dan eats a sandwich, he notes, “the turkey and bacon freshly cooked, the mayonnaise cool and lush, the toast warm, the lettuce crisp, the sliced tomatoes cold and tart.” If only the murder weapon was described with such detail.