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An Enchanted Beginning: Volume 1 (Nick & Carter) Paperback – Import, 20 Dec 2016
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The stylized prose in these five novellas made me think of the sort of flat-footed dialogue of television’s “Dragnet” series with the deadpan detective, Joe Friday. I suppose we should think of Sam Spade, too. Somehow, this clipped, retro style helped evoke San Francisco (and Chicago, and New York) in the late 1940s. For all that Nick Williams is sort of a gay Batman (without the tragedy and costume), the story of him and Carter Woodrow Wilson Jones has a weird ring of authenticity to it. The mysteries get a little more hard-nosed, but the romances charmingly set the stage for this backward look into the bad-old-days when, in spite of everything, gay men (men who were “in the life”) did manage to find each other and build loving relationships.
Butterfield doesn’t give us anything more than suggested sex, which is not only appropriate for the time, but also forces the reader to focus on the people. The first novella begins with the crumbling of Nick’s relationship with Jeffery Klein and his meeting of the Georgia-born fireman, Carter. There is nothing big and important in any of these stories, other than a slightly edgy nostalgia, and the preparation of the setting against which the actual mysteries will take place. We get to really know Nick Williams, who by unforeseen circumstances, becomes one of the richest men in San Francisco, and without question the richest homosexual. While this enables his derring-do as a P.I., it has nothing to do with his love for Carter, which is entirely based on a bolt from the blue, love-at-first-sight kind of romantic premise. Indeed, Butterfield resorts to a whole series of adorable romance novel tropes – including buying a house and meeting the “lady couple” neighbors in the Eureka Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, which will eventually come to be known as the Castro. We learn that Nick isn’t 100% a nice guy. He’s arrogant and feisty, two things taught to him by unloving parents and years in the Navy. Carter, too, scarred by the virulent racism of his small-town Deep South childhood, is no fault-less prince. Both of these men have to consciously reject the male assumptions and prejudices of post-War America, and neither one has any role models to guide them. Nick’s ex-lover Jeffery will have his own story arc in the course of the detective novels, while his first army romance, Mack McKnight, presents a poignant figure of the archetypal gay man always yearning for, but never quite finding, happiness.
As someone born in 1955, it is fascinating to see a world that I just missed; but one in which relatives and friends of my family lived. Gay life didn’t start with Stonewall, and Butterfield’s books offer a warm and cozy vision of something few of us have ever quite understood.