Rating: 4.25 stars
Life can be hard. A fact that Barry gets as he waits tables in a restaurant located in a not so desirable part of Baltimore in 1941. Barry lives in a small rental room whose landlord often forgets the fix the heater, but he can walk to work, Enrique the owner is gay and hires young gay men to work as his staff. Hi boss is kind and watches over his waitstaff protectively, so Barry gets by. One night a highly placed mobster Don Lombardo and his family come in to dine at the restaurant. One of his guards, a hired muscle, is placed at a table in Barry’s section and Barry’s world is turned upside down.
The bodyguard’s name is Vinnie, a mountain of a man, intimidating, dark complexioned with a scar running across his cheek. But he is gentle in his brief conversation with Barry and Barry is drawn to the man despite what his co workers caution. Don Lombardo likes the restaurant and soon makes weekly appearances there as does Vinnie. Before long a discrete romance has started between Vinnie and Barry. But Vinnie is still a bodyguard with all the dangers of the job, no matter how much he wants to escape the life. And there is a new mobster in town looking to take over Don Lombardo’s territory. As the two gangs clash, can Vinnie and Barry hope to keep their relationship and each other safe or will Vinnie be lost in the gang war.
Hired Muscle is such a winsome, well crafted story. Hand Edwards packs a lot of emotion, historical detail, and wonderful characterization into 80 pages. First, Hank Edwards sets the scene and atmosphere of Baltimore 1941, with references such as “like Esther Williams in a whirlpool” or a 1936 Lafayette which was a Nash Sedan and Barry listens to Jimmy Dorsey’s “Amapola” and Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Cocktail”. Edwards descriptions of the streets of Baltimore ring true as well. I live not far from Baltimore, and you can find sections of the city there that still look much like they are described here in the book.
Edwards then does the atmosphere and setting he has created justice by giving us two strong, appealing characters for the reader to care about. Barry is young, gay, cautious and compassionate. Vinnie is gentle, vulnerable, and appealing, a characterization that belies his hulking physicality. Their first interaction is quiet and yet so reflective of their respective characters that I felt I knew who they were in an instant. The author never forgets that it is 1941 and there can be no outward appearance of homosexuality in their relations. So there are hidden notes, discrete assignations, and subtle glances to convey their feelings towards each other. The author uses their dialog, equally sparse, to convey an emotionally charged situation in a manner perfect for the times and scene.
So the location and atmosphere is set and feels so very authentic from the very beginning,the characterizations terrific, and the dialog great. My quibble is with the “instant love” between the characters. Both men are cautious men, which is realistic given the times, their sexuality and Vinnie’s occupation. So is a case of love at first sight realistic? I am not so sure. I think the problem here is the length of story. At 80 pages, the rush to love feels just that, rushed. Had Edwards left their feelings at “I care about you and want to see where it goes” sort of thing, it would have been utterly believable, instead of “I love you”. So Hired Muscle is a wonderful story at 80 pages. I just wish I had more time with Vinnie and Barry to make their declaration of love seem as authentic as the rest of the story. But don’t pass this up because of a small quibble. I loved these two and hope that Edwards will bring them back for a sequel. I think you will feel the same.
Cover: Cover artist Reese Dante does a great job with color and design, just wish the font color had not been red