Desert Isle Keeper
K.J. Charles’ new series, The Will Darling Adventures, is a set of three rip-roaring adventure yarns in the style of 1920s pulp fiction, so readers can expect thrilling adventures, clever mysteries, dastardly deeds, and evil villains pitted against tough, tenacious and upstanding (well, mostly) heroes who triumph against all the odds. Needless to say, when the author announced this was to be her next project, I was rubbing my hands with glee in eager anticipation!
Slippery Creatures is book one, and in it, we meet the charmingly named Will Darling (which always made me smile whenever I read it – I kept thinking of Blackadder!) who went to the front at eighteen and returned to England to discover, as did the thousands of other men returning from France and Belgium in 1918-19, that the country had managed perfectly well without them, and that there was little to no work and no other way to keep body and soul together. Will lost his father when he was young, and his mother to the Spanish Flu while he waited to be demobbed, and was barely eking out an existence doing odd jobs here and there. When things became desperate, he wrote to his uncle – his namesake – who welcomed him with open arms, took him in and gave him a job in his shop. But just a couple of months later, William senior is dead and Will is alone and in possession of Darling’s Used and Antiquarian bookshop.
And that’s when the trouble starts.
Will is still trying to get to grips with the shop, which could best be described as barely organised chaos, when a man approaches him and demands he hands over the information. Taken aback, Will quite honestly says he has no idea what he’s talking about; the man refuses to believe him and gets belligerent; Will becomes equally so and throws him out, thinking that’s an end of it. Until the early hours of the next morning, when he is woken by the unmistakable sounds of someone moving around in the shop. Will manages to run off the intruders – two of them – and when he checks the shop he can find nothing missing.
Already annoyed, Will isn’t pleased to receive a visit the next afternoon from a couple of men in suits who reek of officialdom, one of whom introduces himself as Captain Ingoldsby of the War Office. During their conversation Will realises he’s been confused with his uncle (not that that makes things any clearer) and takes exception to Ingoldsby’s high-handed demand that he co-operate with him and allow the shop to be searched. Will’s at the end of his tether when he’s visited by yet another thug – in broad daylight – who fortunately runs away when another customer appears in the shop. The man – tall, dark, good-looking, charming – introduces himself as Kim Secretan and helps Will straighten the place up a bit, then takes him for a drink at the local pub.
Worn out, worn down, fed up with being lonely and belatedly in shock at having been attacked (again), Will isn’t going to turn down the prospect of a drink and some conversation with someone friendly and who is, it appears, knowledgeable about the book trade. It’s been such a long time since he’s had anything but his own company and something about Kim invites confidence, so Will finds himself opening up about the strange man who demanded information, the burglary, the threatening visits from Ingoldsby – and is relieved when Kim takes him seriously and even offers to help him out.
Finding himself somehow caught in the middle of a nefarious game being played out by fanatical Bolshevik terrorists and self-righteous War Office types, Will is only too glad to have found an ally in the enigmatic and dangerously attractive Kim… until he discovers that far from being a disinterested friend, Kim has ulterior motives.
K.J. Charles pens a superbly constructed, intricate mystery full of unexpected twists and murky motivations, featuring well-developed characters who are compelling even when you don’t like them very much! Will is a much-decorated soldier, clear-sighted but disillusioned with the society to which he has returned. He’s stubborn – often to his detriment – intelligent, tough, resourceful and unwilling to compromise his principles, while for Kim, doing the right thing is a much more flexible concept. He’s every bit as clever and resourceful as Will, and is one of those morally ambiguous characters the author excels at writing, making him likeable even as I was hating the pain he caused Will, and wondering just how much of what came out of his mouth was the truth. The relationship between them is really well done (this is a three book series, so don’t go into this one expecting an HEA); Will and Kim are strongly attracted to each other physically, and there’s a definite undercurrent of mutual ‘like’ (when Will isn’t cursing Kim for being a git, that is) but the author is setting up a slow-burn, and I’m really looking forward to watching it play out.
I always enjoy K.J. Charles’ wonderfully British sense of humour and her sly pokes at the classic stiff-upper-lip:
[Will] had no idea what civilians, or civilised people, would say in these circumstances. Thanks for that, old chap, much obliged, perhaps? Ought he apologise for coming in his mouth? Would this be a good moment to restart the conversation about where Kim had learned to use a knife?
Thank God they were British. He took a deep breath. “Cup of tea?”
– together with the strong sense of time and place she brings to her novels and the always informative historical background. I especially appreciated the fact that the bad guys weren’t all wrong and the good guys weren’t all right, and that the motivations of the Establishment were just as murky as those of the anarchists, which just added to the tension and raised the stakes for our heroes.
The supporting cast isn’t extensive, but there are a couple of delightful ladies I sincerely hope we’re going to see more of – Will’s friend Maisie and the flighty Phoebe, who seems to be the epitome of the Bright Young Thing, but is much kinder and more perceptive – both of them well-rounded and distinctive, with actual roles to play that are more than mere set-dressing.
K.J. Charles never fails to pull me completely into whichever book of hers I’m reading, and this one was no exception. It’s a terrific, perfectly-paced read with action, adventure, dastardly villains, a high-stakes plot and a pair of captivating protagonists. Slippery Creatures is fun, clever, sexy and utterly engrossing – and I can’t wait for more of the Will Darling Adventures.
”My name, since you raise the topic, is Arthur Aloysius Kimberley de Brabazon Secretan. What would you do in my place?”
“Leave the country,” Will said wholeheartedly. “You poor bastard, you never stood a chance.”