An Unseen Attraction is the first in K.J Charles’ new Sins of the Cities trilogy of historical romantic mysteries set in the late Victorian era. She has taken as her inspiration the pulp fiction of the day; the Victorian sensation novel as penned by authors such as Wilkie Collins, Sheridan le Fanu and Mary E. Braddon. As a big fan of that particular genre, I was rubbing my hands with glee whilst awaiting this first instalment, and am happy to report that the wait was well worth it.
English born, Anglo-Indian Clem Tallyfer keeps a respectable lodging house for skilled artisans in Clerkenwell, which was, even in Victorian times, an area of London where multiculturalism flourished. Clem is quiet, unassuming and content with his lot; he enjoys his work and he’s good at it because he’s good with people. He’s a decent, kind man with a good-heart and an optimistic outlook… although he does find one particular resident rather troubling, the Reverend Lugtrout, an habitual drunkard who gets aggressive and rude when under the influence, but whom he is powerless to evict. The lodging house is owned by Clem’s brother, and Clem’s position is conditional on Lugtrout’s living there. He doesn’t know why, or even how his brother knows Lugtrout, but Clem can’t do other than accept the situation and put up with the man’s unpleasant behaviour.
For the last eight months, Rowley Green has lived at the lodging house and rented the shop next door where he practices his trade as a preserver – a taxidermist – and I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever read or listened to a book where one of the central characters has been engaged in that particular profession! Rowley is small, neat, bespectacled and unexceptional; he goes about his business and keeps himself pretty much to himself, although he can’t deny the pull of attraction he feels towards the handsome Clem, with his lovely eyes, dark skin and sweetly charming manner. Clem is similarly smitten with the softly spoken Rowley, who really listens to him, never gets impatient with him and seems to have an instinctive understanding of Clem’s difficulties with organisation, dislike of loud noises and crowds and doesn’t mind his occasional clumsiness.
Neither man is quite sure how to make his interest known, but very soon, their new habit of taking tea together of an evening leads to the formation of a strong and genuine friendship and eventually to more in a way that feels completely natural and unhurried. The relationship between these two adorable, ordinary men is extremely well developed and infused with a real sense of affection and tenderness. But that’s not to say everything in the garden is rosy. Aspects of Clem’s background and Rowley’s past crop up to cause friction between them, but ultimately, there’s no question that these two are in it for the long haul, that together, they’re strong enough and confident enough in their love for each other to be able to weather even the worst storms.
I won’t reveal too much about the plot as this is a mystery, other than to say that when the mutilated body of the obnoxious Lugtrout is dumped on Clem’s doorstep, it sets in motion an ugly train of events that threatens not only both men’s livelihoods but their very lives.
The plot is extremely well constructed and I particularly enjoyed spotting all the little homages to Victorian sensation fiction that Ms. Charles incorporates into her story – evil relatives, missing heirs, clandestine relationships, blackmail, murder and sinister figures lurking amid the dank streets. The author does a wonderful job in putting the listener right in the middle of those gloomy, muck-strewn streets and of describing the all-pervasive pea-soupers, those dense, choking fogs that so often descended on London, obliterating the daylight and hanging menacingly in the air. It’s all incredibly atmospheric and really helps ratchet up the tension.
I’ve just one word of caution to add at this point, which is to say that while Clem and Rowley’s story is concluded in this book, there is an overarching plotline that I imagine will run throughout the novels in this trilogy (Victorian novels were usually issued in three volumes, after all, so it makes sense!). If you really can’t stand cliff-hangers, then you might want to wait until you can listen to all three books in succession, but for me, it wasn’t an issue.
Having enjoyed listening to Matthew Lloyd Davies in the author’s Society of Gentlemen series, I was pleased to learn that he was back on board for this, and, I hope, subsequent Sins of the Cities books. His performance here is every bit as good as I’d hoped; well-paced, subtly nuanced and with all the characters very clearly delineated and easy to identify. Clem is a wonderful creation, a steadfast, loyal man who always strives to do the right thing; a lovely mix of naïveté with a hint of naughtiness underneath – and Mr. Lloyd Davies’ portrayal captures all of those aspects of his personality incredibly well. Rowley is just as well characterised, his slight London accent serving to differentiate him very effectively from Clem, so that there’s never any confusion as to who is speaking in their many scenes together. There’s a colourful secondary cast, too, most of them found at The Jack and Knave, the local pub where Clem, his friends and others of their sexual persuasion can meet and relax. Two of these characters – Nathaniel, a lawyer-turned-reporter, and “Polish” Mark, a private investigator – have key roles to play in the mystery. Nathaniel’s plummy, aristocratic drawl suits his slightly ostentatious character down to the ground, and Mark’s low-pitched, gravelly growl thoroughly conveys the not-so-subtle hint of menace that surrounds him.
It’s an excellent performance on all counts, and when combined with a compelling story and wonderfully rounded characters, makes An Unseen Attraction an easy audiobook to recommend.
Book Content: A-
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in
Violence Rating: Fighting
Genre: Historical Romance/Mystery
Publisher: Audible Studios
An Unseen Attraction was provided to AudioGals by Audible Studios for a review.