The Timid Traitor: Volume 10 (A Nick Williams Mystery) Paperback – Import, 3 May 2017
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I love the Nick Williams books; they’re not deep, but in their own way they’re profound. They cast a beady eye on an America that is far less “nice” that we all thought we were; an America in which the rich and powerful do what they want without regard to actual truth or constitutional concepts of liberty and civil rights.
Oh. That’s uncomfortably familiar.
Nick Williams is an interesting guy. For all his born-to-wealth roots—dating back to a vast gold rush fortune that ended up coming to him through a notoriously gay great-uncle—he is in odd ways a typical, privileged white boy in the least appealing American way. He is ignorant of foreign cultures and languages, and is remarkably unsophisticated about everything you’d expect a gently-born man to know. He is more Ward Cleaver than James Bond. I suspect this is because he was raised by a nasty, controlling man (who, marvelously, has changed his stripes rather dramatically as the series has unfolded) and thus rejected everything his father stood for, joining the Navy and going off to war as a teenager.
So Nick is a sort of tabula rasa—a blank slate. A very rich blank slate. His only passions in life are Carter Woodrow Wilson Jones, a Georgia cracker with more muscles than you can shake a stick at; and seeking justice for any folks “in the life” who are treated badly and desperate for stability in their lives. He is careless and uncomfortable with his money—in spite of the fleet of airplanes and the vast yacht he’s acquired along the way, not to mention the “big pile of rocks” on Nob Hill in which he and Carter live, replete with servants. Nick and Carter are white-boy stereotypes made different, and heroic, because they’re gay. For Nick, money is a tool to be used to do good for gay people.
What enriches these books is Butterfield’s ability to insert snippets of political and cultural history that remind us that, behind the fantasy of Nick Williams, lie many uncomfortable truths about our nation. The definition of good and evil is never quite as simple as Nick wants it to be, and I credit the author with giving the tough-guy Nick the ability to cry when he is overwhelmed with the harsher realities of life. Nick’s tears always move me.
I imagine this series of books—like the Hardy Boys of my infancy and youth—as a television series, each book taking up several weekly episodes, rich with nostalgic 1950s details and painful reminders of the bad old days. Of course, Hollywood is no more likely to produce such a thing today than it was 62 years ago when I was born. The fact that Frank Butterfield has written the Nick Williams series is a testament to the ways in which the world has changed. The fact that it is still such an outrageous fantasy—the source of its chief pleasure for its readers—is a testament to how the world, for the marginalized of America, is much the same as it’s always been.