An Unseen Attraction
K.J. Charles announced a while back that her new Sins of the Cities series of historical romances would feature stories in the mould of Victorian Sensation Fiction:
“… channelling my love for Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Dickens in his wilder moods, and the other glorious writers of complicated plots with scandals, secrets and shenanigans up the wazoo.”
To say I was excited at the prospect of something like this coming from one of my favourite writers is a gross understatement; I read a steady diet of books by those authors – and others – throughout my twenties and thirties, so I eagerly snapped up An Unseen Attraction, eager to see how Ms. Charles would employ the conventions and stylistic features of that particular genre of fiction in her story. And she does not disappoint. It’s all here – swirling Pea-Soupers, sinister figures lurking in the dark, a long-buried family secret, manipulative relatives who are not what they seem… and an endearingly innocent protagonist and the stalwart love of his life who support each other through life-threatening events and unpleasant revelations. The main difference, of course, is that those characters are both male, and the author has done a fabulous job in translating the traditional role of the artless heroine who is – unknowingly – under threat from the machinations of an evil relative to a male character who is similarly circumstanced.
That character is Clem Talleyfer, who keeps a quiet, respectable lodging house in Clerkenwell which was, even in mid-Victorian times, an area where multiculturalism flourished. Clem is English, but was born to a white father and Indian mother, and he feels comfortable there, where –
There were Jews, Italians, Indians, Germans, Arabs and Africans and Chinese and more, all going about their own business like everybody else.
He has kept the lodging house for about eight years, and is good at it because he’s a “people person”; he’s a good listener and a kind, compassionate man with a good heart. He’s quiet, reserved and methodical; he doesn’t like crowds or noise and finds it difficult sometimes to organise his thoughts, but he takes pride in his work – although he wishes the drunken Reverend Lugtrout, who lives at the house at the behest of Clem’s brother, who owns the place, would take himself somewhere else.
He has never understood his brother’s stipulation about Lugtrout having to live there, but there isn’t much he can do about it as the man has never shown any inclination to leave. But when he is murdered and left unceremoniously on Clem’s doorstep, things take an abruptly menacing turn, threatening not only Clem’s safety, but that of the man he has come to love, Rowley Green, the taxidermist who rents the shop next door.
Rowley is a small, generally unprepossessing man, who lives a quiet, generally unprepossessing life and likes it that way. But he can’t deny the pull of attraction he feels towards the handsome Clem, with his beautiful eyes, dark skin and oddly charming manner. Clem is similarly smitten with the neat, precise Mr. Green, who is never impatient with him and who is comfortable with silence. Their habit of taking tea together of an evening leads to a genuine friendship and eventually to more in a way that feels natural, unhurried and, quite simply, lovely. The depth of understanding between them is apparent, and even though they both have their faults and sometimes make missteps, they are strong enough and confident enough in themselves and in their love for each other to be able to weather those storms.
The descriptions of London’s East End with its dingy streets and dangerous alleyways, the Pea-Soupers (fogs) and the local watering-holes and shops are all very evocative and put the reader right there on the rain-soaked cobbles next to the gutters running with all sorts of unsavoury muck. The author offers some interesting perspectives on Rowley’s profession; while it may have something of an “ick” factor nowadays, taxidermy was very popular in the Victorian era and the way in which Clem and Rowley’s thoughts about it are so often in sync is another way of showing how perfect they are for one another.
I’m not going to say any more about the plot – which is superbly constructed and in which the author has not only made several nods to nineteenth century sensation novels, but has also somehow given the whole thing an understated quality that makes events all the more plausible. I will say, though, that while the mystery is wrapped up as far as Clem and Rowley are concerned, there is a cliffhanger at the end which is obviously going to be picked up in the next book, so be warned that you might not want to read the last page until the next book comes out in June!
An Unseen Attraction is a terrific book and one I’m more than happy to recommend. K.J. Charles is a superb storyteller and has once again crafted both an intriguing and engrossing story and a tender romance between two well-drawn protagonists whose unique personality traits inform their emotional and sexual relationships. Add to that the way she so thoroughly immerses the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian London, and the strong cast of secondary characters – some of whom will star in future books – and it’s fair to say that she’s got another winning series on her hands.