If you like historical crime novels with LGBT+ protagonists who always get a Happy Ever After, then you will adore, and possibly fight a duel for the honour of, K.J. Charles.
Charles’ books have oodles of atmosphere, brilliant representation and enough plot to populate a library. She’s also brilliant on social media (her Goodreads reviews are my new North Star) and has published over 30 books, all good enough to knock every other title off your to-read list.
Sound good but not sure where to begin? I’m currently marathoning my way through everything Charles has ever written and these are my top three recommendations to get you started.
Recommendation No. 1
Think of England
Charles is probably best known for her meticulous historical research, tight-plotting and pulse-raising sex scenes, but it’s her sly humour that will really win you over. Throw in an homage to Edwardian pulp novels (check out this list of Charles’ favourite Edwardian pulp novels) and it’s easy to see why Think of England sits at the top of the list.
Archie is a retired soldier. After a suspicious shipment of faulty guns obliterated a few of Archie’s fingers and friends, he’s in need of answers. The way to get those answers is by going undercover at a weekend party. The party is hosted by an arms manufacturer who Archie suspects of tampering with the the guns and two things quickly become apparent. Archie isn’t the only guest snooping around and he’s really not very good at this whole spy business.
Daniel da Silva, meanwhile, is a proper spy (sorry Archie) who also writes poetry in his spare time, wears silk, flirts with men and generally does all the things that chaps like Archie mistrust. So we have Archie having multiple realisations about his sexuality while Daniel looks on in mounting bewilderment and in the background murder is most definitely afoot.
Recommendation No. 2
An Unseen Attraction
Now it’s around this point that any true Charles fan will be gnashing their teeth to nubs over the fact that I have not recommended The Magpie Lord. Not that they wouldn’t have good reason! The Magpie Lord is evocative, atmospheric, populated with brilliant characters, enthralling period detail and it’s steamy enough to fog up your glasses. It also caters to quite niche tastes and includes a power dynamic that will send a lot of readers scrambling for the back button.
So there’s that but there’s also the fact that Charles’ Sins of the Cities series (An Unseen Attraction is the first installment) has all of the above mentioned atmosphere, research, engaging characters, etc. and it includes Clem. Who is Clem? Clem is the handsome, socially awkward, potentially autistic, incredibly sweet natured owner of a lodging house in Victorian London.
Clem just wants to have a quiet life. He likes tea and going to the theatre to watch the variety shows with his new taxidermist boyfriend. Unfortunately for Clem, he is being stalked through the thick London smog by a murderer known as the Fog Man. People keep turning up dead, his brother is making some rather odd demands and it all seemed to centre about a stuffed badger, dressed as Hermes.
Recommendation No. 3
Unfit to Print
I’ve covered Charles’ talents for writing capers and crime, now it’s time for some angst. As a smutty book lover, a one-time aspiring publisher, and a current professional editor, I’m practically legally obliged to love Unfit to Print. Gil Lawless has a book shop on Holywell Street, a London road once notorious for the depth and diversity of the pornographic material on offer. Of course Charles has done her homework and of course the reader is given a tantalizing insight into Holywell’s history and is left avid to learn more.*
Gil became a publisher after he was forced to drop out of school and found himself homeless at the age of 16. Relatively content with his career, Gil is refreshingly clear sighted and not given to self-pity. Which is just as well because his old school mate Vikram Pandey has just discovered his whereabouts and is trying to rope Gil into a murder investigation.
The angst in Unfit to Print comes in multiple forms, starting with Vik’s experience as a high-profile Indian lawyer with a big heart. Many of London’s Indian immigrants were vulnerable to exploitation during this time** and Vik’s privileged position leaves him feeling like he’s on a one-man mission to tackle this abuse. Vik’s loneliness is palpable and his relief at finding Gil will squeeze even the most callous reader’s heart.
* For further reading check out The Secret History of Holywell Street: Home to Victorian London’s Dirty Book Trade.
** Sukhdev Sandhu devotes a few chapters to this time in the highly-recommended London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City.
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