Five years ago, Pat and Fen almost stole the spotlight from Curtis and DaSilva in Charles’s Think of England. Their mismatched charm, and utter competence save the day and left readers begging for their story. Proper English, a delightfully dark house party mystery, is that story, set two years before Think of England. While the focus in Proper English is firmly on the central quartet of Jimmy, Billie, Pat and Fen, Charles continues to excels at creating with fascinating secondary characters who love to steal scenes. From the loyal and serious Victoria Singh, to the tart and savvy Travers, Charles fills this novel with women who are not to be underestimated, not even brittle and bitter Lady Anna.
Pat is relieved to be heading off to a hunting holiday with her brother at his best friend’s house and to leave the family home she has managed since girlhood in the hands of its new mistress, her new sister-in-law Olivia. Pat hopes that the days outdoor will let her sort out her next steps, and work out what to do with her life in the wake of her brother’s marriage. But her hopes of a soothing retreat are dashed when Jimmy announces that his new fiancee has invited herself along and that all his family will be in residence.
“I don’t understand how anyone could not see you,” Pat said again. “I don’t see how they couldn’t look. I don’t see how they could stop.”
KJ Charles, Proper English
To most Miss Fenella Carruth is a curvy, sparkling and utterly ornamental young heiress, but Pat soon realises her good cheer and charm hide a keen mind and a deep sadness. Fen has twice broken off engagements and seems doomed to do so again, in the face of her fiance’s preoccupied disregard of her. In Pat she finds an unlikely confidant and champion who sees her like no one has seen her before.
At the heart of Pat and Fen’s romance is a keen sense of observation and awareness. Both have camouflage themselves through their lives. Pat blends in with the men in the hunting party, parlying her shooting skills and hardy constitution into cover that allows her to be just one of the guns. Meanwhile Fen, deflects hurtful comments and smooths over conversational breaks, performing often overlooked emotional labor on behalf of all those around her. Both excell at hiding the uncomfortable and painful from casual observers but come to recognize in each other a kinship and discover mutual desire.
Even as Pat and Fen’s friendship blooms, the fact that Fen is engaged to Pat’s good friend is real obstacle. I loved how Pat works to be good friend to both of them, restraining her own feelings, as she tries to give good advice to Jimmy. Her bluntness and directness serve them both well. Her loyalty to Jimmy, despite her deep disappointment in how he is behaving toward Fen, force Fen to be the active pursuer. She is the first to recognize the spark between them for what it is,and to stoke it. Perpetually overlooked or denigrated for her managing personality, it is lovely to see Fen lavish appreciation and attention on Pat and welcome her eagerly into her life. This makes for a incredibly satisfying romance.
I love a good house party mystery and this one is stellar! With each turn of the page, Charles ratchets up the tension with painfully uncomfortable dinner conversations, half-overheard threats, private trysts interrupted and oppressive weather, long before murder is committed. When Jimmy’s manipulative and sadistic brother-in-law goes missing and later turns up dead, Billie, Pat, and the newly un-engaged Fen & Jimmy work together to try to uncover who in the house is responsible when nearly everyone has a secret and thus a motive for murder. The investigation and its resolution were breathlessly intense and likely to please all house party mystery enthusiasts.
In Proper English, Charles creates a prequel that more than matches the suspense and romance of the first book, while avoiding many of the prior books faults. I was particularly pleased to see that Charles is able to present the reality of racism and insidiousness of prejudice and ignorance without subjecting readers to hateful slurs.
My copy of Proper English is filled with swoony-highlights and I am sure to re-read it again and again to relish its optimistic and sweet ending.
Content Warnings: Bullying, Drug Addiction (secondary character), Fatphobia, Murder
Ana received a copy of this book from the author for review.