It’s 1896 and when the mercury rises in New York, there is precious little anyone can do to find relief. Tempers rise along with the temperatures and it’s only a matter of time before accidents start to happen. When the body of a dead male prostitute is found, it’s not difficult to rationalize it away. The body count doesn’t stop at one, however. Before long, a pattern emerges that catches acting inspector Hank Brandt’s attention—someone is deliberately targeting the working boys of New York. Being a so-called invert himself, he takes the case to heart despite the protests of his homophobic partner.
Hank is determined to catch the killer, but his only lead is a female impersonator named Nicky. In fact, Nicky’s skill at cross dressing is instrumental in identifying the murderer and progressing Hank’s case. His interest in the performer goes beyond the professional, but things take a turn for the complicated when Nicky returns Hank’s passion. Both men know exactly how deep the taboo of being labeled an invert runs. Hank stands to lose his career and the chance to pin the crimes to the murderer if his or his witness’ credibility is damaged. When his hand gets forced, Hank knows he has to make some difficult decisions—he just hopes they’re the right ones.
Ten Days in August centers on two main arcs: Hank/Nicky and Andrew/Charlie. The former mostly takes place in and around New York, while the latter is centered around the police headquarters and a bit at Andrew’s apartment. Hank and Andrew work for the police force while Nicky and Charlie are employed at what is basically a club that caters to men who enjoy the company of other men.
I thought McMurray did a respectable job balancing the police-centric aspects with the romance-centric aspects and vice-versa. The back-and-forth kept the various elements in the story on a roll and fresh in my mind. The story also comes across sounding well researched. The author obviously did her homework to present period-accurate side stories concerning presidential politics. It was fun to google stuff in the book like Theodore Roosevelt (!) and the Democratic National Convention of 1896 (!!) and see it was all well within the realm of possibilities. Even better is that all this wasn’t just a ding-dong-ditch info-dump. McMurray actually uses the historical context to support the rest of the action. Case in point: the police are being encouraged to enforce the “Sunday Laws” but not seriously pursue the murder of male prostitutes—both in the spirit of moral rectitude.
The thoroughness of the world-building also lent credibility to the risks Hank and Nicky face. As two men are sexually attracted to each other, they face enormous obstacles and must consider the merits and demerits of starting a liaison and, later, whether or not to continue it. McMurray does a fine job of using the supporting cast of both sympathetic and antagonistic characters to flesh out the world in which Hank and Nicky live, which was great at SHOWING the reader what it might have been like back in that era.
I was a little less enamored of Nicky’s backstory where his family were concerned, only because it seemed virtually superfluous to the rest of the action. Nicky and Hank already have to contend with the fact that they’re two men who want to pursue a romantic relationship. Plus, Nicky’s gender-fluid identification (how’s that for an anachronistic application of vocabulary?) adds another level of complexity to their relationship. There are also the risks inherent to a police investigator being outed with said gender-fluid partner. I didn’t think we needed the family drama that breaks over Nicky, but we got it regardless.
Back on the gender-fluidity, that was probably my favorite thread in the story. It didn’t play the biggest role, no one made the biggest stink over it one way or the other. It simply was. Nicky dressed and acted the part of a woman because it felt natural to him. I liked that Hank’s reaction wasn’t to object profusely or immediately fetishize Nicky for it…neither did he try persuading Nicky to adopt his feminine side for public acceptance. Overall, I thought (as a cis-ish female, anyway) this was handled very humanly. I love it when consenting adults get their consent on.
As far as weak points go, the only biggie for me was that, at times, the writing felt a bit tedious for me. For whatever reason, McMurray eschews the use of contractions half the time. This habit made the dialogue come across notably stilted at times. It wasn’t like every contracted form was omitted, either, so the flip-flopping was conspicuous to me. Another issue I had was with the repetitiveness of the descriptive language. The smells brought about by a hot and stagnant city were invariably described as rotting something or other. Hot sweaty bodies typically smelled sour—but if it was the hot, sweaty body of someone you liked, then it was also kind of a turn on. For some reason, Hank always thought he could smooth out the wrinkles in his shirt by brushing them—if only that really worked.
All in all, though, this was a good little book. I liked the author’s attention to historical detail and highlighting the kinds of things “inverts” in the day would struggle with. There’s plenty of activity to keep the plot moving and the final leg of the book has some real action between the good guys and the bad guys. Not everything works out “perfectly,” but everything important gets addressed. If you like historical dramas spiced up with some quick shots of sex and longer ones of romance, this is a good book for you.