I can think of no more convincing way to start my review/endorsement of KJ Charles’ new book Proper English than these words I added to a reblog of an aesthetic post on Tumblr: “I just read this yesterday! Folks, y’all know there’s an Edwardian lesbian romance that is also a country house murder mystery where the lesbians solve it and live happily ever after, right? Well, now you do.” Plus, the love interest is a beautiful, not-thin woman who is just described as voluptuous and pretty with no disclaimers.
For some of you, that’s all you’ll need and you’ve already one-clicked it or requested it at your library. But if anyone else needs convincing, here are some more details.
The leading lady, Pat, has never been married and likes to go hunting with the men in her social sphere (specifically, “shooting”, which is birds.) There’s an awesome conversation between some of the female characters about vegetarian objections to hunting (in the person of the book’s Indian character, Miss Singh) vs. objections from a meat eater who is merely squeamish about where her food ultimately comes from, vs. the hunter herself. It’s cool to see women talking about “issues” in a book that combines two genres in which one doesn’t usually expect deep philosophy — fluffy romance and country-house murder mystery.
But it is a book with deep bits, small ones that are easy to swallow. Pat’s love interest, Fenella, for example — her storyline is all about her frustration and heartbreak with how often her personality is misread by everyone with whom she interacts. She can’t live up to her own potential so she ends up living down to people’s expectations, therefore proving them true. She’s able to grow through her contact and eventual romance with Pat, who tells her — and this is great advice I had to learn myself, as a baby queer — “People are awfully lazy, and ready to take other people at the value they put on themselves without thinking twice.” (It doesn’t always work; I know that. But it’s at least a useful tool occasionally.)
I forgot this was going to be a murder mystery until the book’s most annoying character, a racist piece of excrement married to the host’s sister, was a no-show for two meals in a row. Then the fact that I’m the kind of nerd who owns 95% of Agatha Christie’s output and even has then on their own special bookshelf kicked in and I realized, oh, wow, no wonder the author made him so over the top annoying! Because that’s a favorite technique of Christie’s, too — and she’s the reason we have country-house murder mysteries — to make the murder victim super awful so that 1. we don’t miss them as a reader and 2. so there will be a healthy crop of suspects because of how many people would breathe easier without Mr. Excrement walking the earth. “The house is full of motives,” as Pat tells Fenella.
There are no Agatha Christie books where the lesbians walk merrily off into the sunset together. Believe me, I’d know. Instead we get dead lesbians, guilty lesbians — all implied, all under the surface — or just no sapphic representation at all, which I prefer to the depressing stuff honestly. So to have my favorite genre of literature include a f/f HEA was a real treat!
I won’t say this book totally scratched my puzzle itch, so its strength is mostly as a romance novel. That’s fine. I wanted to write a Christie-style mystery my whole life and once I tried it (A Harvest of Ripe Figs) I realized how astronomically hard it is to pull off a surprise solution that is truly a surprise. But the world definitely has too few happy, fluffy lesbian historical romances, so it’s nice to have a nice solid new one.
Historical romance also granulates, inasmuch as “Regency romance” is a subgenre separate from “medieval romance”, etc. As far as I can see it, every era of f/f romance is important, because they will always be filling their own niche. After all, one can find a m/f romance set in any era one wants (for example: I love reading about 1660-1770 because of the gigantic skirts and Baroque architecture!) so it would be nice if readers of f/f had the same opportunity. So this book is a nice good quality contribution to that cause!
(P.S. I can’t remember the details but these characters show up in a m/m country house/spy thriller set a few years later, Think of England, which I reviewed back when I wrote it. So this is their backstory.)
Shira Glassman is the author of extremely fluffy, sometimes sexy, f/f fantasy and contemporary romance. Read her latest: Cinnamon Blade, Knife in Shining Armor (superhero/damsel in distress) or Knit One Girl Two (sweet contemporary.)