I’ve yet to meet a book by K.J. Charles that I haven’t at the very least liked – or more usually, loved - and her latest title, The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen is no exception. The story is set in and around Romney Marsh in Kent – a fairly desolate part of the country even today and one that from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, was something of a smuggler’s paradise due to its topography, location and isolation. TSLoCG is a fabulous mix of frenemies-to-lovers romance and mystery boasting a wonderfully evoked setting, lots of interesting historical detail and plenty of the wry humour and sharp observation that I so enjoy about the author’s work.
After the death of his wife, Sir Hugo Inglis sent his six-year-old son Gareth to live in London with his uncle. It very much a case of out of sight, out of mind for Sir Hugo, who married again and ignored his son’s pleas to be brought home. Gareth grew up without love and affection, knowing he was unwanted from the moment Henry Inglis made it very clear to his bereaved, exiled nephew that he had taken him in on sufferance and because he was being paid to. Gareth eventually studied law and has worked as his uncle’s clerk for several years, when, completely out of the blue, Inglis dismisses him for no reason. Just two days later, Gareth learns that his father is dead and that he has inherited the baronetcy, his house in Romney Marsh in Kent and a fairly respectable sum of money.
Going through his father’s books and papers, Gareth finds himself intrigued by his collection of books on natural history, maps of the local area and the collection of notebooks in which Sir Hugo made copious notes about the local birds, wildlife, flora and fauna and his particular interest in insects. Gareth has always been interested in natural history and at first thinks that by reading the notebooks, he might learn something about his father… but there’s nothing by way of personal reflection or insight to be found. Still, his own interest is piqued and he begins to explore his surroundings, starting in his own garden and then going further afield and onto the marshes. Out late one night, he stumbles across a string of ponies laden with packs and barrels; realising immediately what this means, he steps back out of sight, but can’t help overhearing voices raised in argument and then seeing a man pull off the cloth covering his companion’s face. Gareth is surprised to recognise the young woman, but before he can think much about it, she barks a command and the train moves on. The next day, Gareth thoughtlessly mentions this in front of his half-sister Cecilia’s beau, a revenue officer; the young woman is arrested and brought for trial, and Gareth, despite not really wanting to rock any boats, is called to give evidence against her.
The Doomsday family runs a large smuggling operation on the Marsh that provides work, income and goods for many local families, and at its head is Joss Doomsday, who controls the operation with a firm yet reasonable hand. It shouldn’t be his responsibility, though - after his father died, his mother and his uncle Elijah took over, but it quickly became clear that Elijah was reckless, unreliable and too often to be found at the bottom of a bottle, and things were starting to fall apart. So Joss stepped in - much to Elijah’s annoyance - and is now recognised as the “Upright Man”, the de facto head of the family and the go-to for just about everything affecting his family, dependents and those living in and around Dymchurch. Ma Doomsday won’t hear a word against Elijah, so Joss has to put up with the man’s carelessness and his resentment , and his constant complaints to and about him. Joss doesn’t have the time or energy to deal with him once and for all – his responsibilities leave him little time for himself or a life of his own – although when Elijah’s carelessness leads to his sister Sophy’s arrest, Joss has to act quickly to save her. He tries to speak to Sir Gareth privately to ask him to drop the charges, but the man refuses to see him and in the end leaves Joss no choice but to do the very thing he had hoped to avoid. He’s already realised that Sir Gareth is the man he’d known only as “London” during the very pleasurable week of nights they’d spent together some weeks earlier on one of Joss’ regular ‘business’ trips to the city. Joss had felt a real connection with him and had enjoyed his company as much as the sex; he’d even hoped they’d be able to continue to meet on subsequent visits, but those hopes were dashed when his lover became inexplicably cold and dismissive and walked out – leaving Joss angry and disappointed. Since learning the identity of the new baronet, he’s tried to keep out of his way, but now, he’s left with no alternative to a very public confrontation.
When Gareth sees his former lover “Kent” enter the courtroom, it doesn’t take him long to put the pieces together and understand exactly what his presence there means - that he could ruin him with a well-chosen word. Furious and humiliated, he retracts his statement, Sophy is saved and Joss is… tired.
Gareth would be pleased to never see Joss again, but when it becomes clear that he has stumbled into the middle of something both bewildering and dangerous, Joss is the only person he can turn to for help. The Sweetwaters - the gang that operates on the other side of Romney – seem to think Gareth is in possession of something they want, but he has absolutely no idea what it could be and is sure he doesn’t have it anyway. This McGuffin kicks the mystery plot into gear, as Joss and Gareth begin searching for answers, turning up clues and slowly putting the pieces together to reveal a bigger picture that not only reveals what the Sweetwaters are after, but also sheds light on some long unanswered and increasingly disquieting questions about Gareth’s family.
The plot is clever and fast-paced, with a thrilling, edge-of-the-seat climax, and the cross-class romance is beautifully done, with lots of tenderness and moments of recognition between Joss and Gareth, who are both thoroughly decent men dealing with the difficult hands life has dealt them. Both have become heads of their respective families at a young age, and are finding that responsibility weighing on them. Gareth has no idea how to be part of a family and struggles to know how to interact with his newly-found relatives, while Joss is the man everyone looks to for help, for guidance, for a plan, and has little to no time to just be himself. Life at the top is lonely and he has no-one to share his burdens, no one who is really “on his side”. Gareth has never had that either; he’s been alone for most of his life – alone or surrounded by those who didn’t want or didn’t care for him. His deep-seated fear of abandonment is what caused him to reject “Kent” and bring their affair to an end, and he believes himself to be weak because he doesn’t like confrontation. Despite the inauspicious beginning to their romance, Gareth and Joss are drawn together, finding a kind of refuge in each other, a respite from the pressures they face in their everyday lives, and I enjoyed watching them learning things about themselves as they question their assumptions about who they are and who and what they can be. The author explores the dichotomy between wanting a life of one’s own while one bears responsibility for others, and I really enjoyed the way Joss challenges Gareth’s perception of himself as weak, showing him that he’s so much stronger than he thinks, and the way Gareth encourages Joss to set down his burdens while they’re together: “if you can just be you with me - I’d love that.”
The historical background is, of course, impeccably researched and integrated into the story, and the way the realities of ‘free trade’ (smuggling) are presented is very thought-provoking. The theme of the commoner who takes care of his people versus the self entitlement of the aristocrat who doesn’t give a stuff for anyone but himself is a recurring one in K.J. Charles’ books, but given the current political climate in the UK, it’s one that is as relevant now - if not more so – as it ever was. That said, the very valid social commentary never overshadows the romance or the plot; this book is absolutely NOT full of intrusive authorial tub-thumping at the expense of the story.
The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen is book one in the Doomsday Books duology, with the second due for release later this year. Gareth and Joss are easy to like and root for, and their romance is warm, tender and utterly charming. The secondary cast is beautifully drawn, the mystery is intriguing and the imagery pertaining to the desolate, forbidding marshland where one wrong turn could spell disaster creates an atmosphere so strong it’s almost a character in itself. The author’s decision to take this series to a mainstream publisher rather than to self-publish has meant it’s been a while since we’ve had a new full-length K.J. Charles novel to enjoy, but I can attest that it’s been worth the wait.
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