On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.
Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.
But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.
I freely admit that I’ve been chomping at the bit to get my hands on this third and final instalment of K.J. Charles’ Sins of the Cities trilogy, eager to discover who has been violently disposing of anyone with knowledge of the missing heir to the Moreton earldom and to find out how all the pieces of the puzzle the author has so cleverly devised fit together.
Note: The books in this series could be read as standalones (although I wouldn’t advise it!), but there is an overarching plot that runs through all three, so there are spoilers in this review.
A trail of arson and murder began – literally – on the doorstep of unassuming lodging house keeper, Clem Tallyfer, when the dead, mutilated body of one of his lodgers, the drunken, foul-mouthed Reverend Lugtrout, was dumped on the front steps. An investigation by two of Clem’s friends – journalist Nathaniel Roy and private enquiry agent, Mark Braglewicz – revealed that someone was trying to do away with anyone who knew that the Earl of Morton (Clem’s half-brother) had committed bigamy. He entered into a marriage in his youth with a beautiful young woman of low social standing and soon abandoned her, not knowing she was pregnant. She gave birth to twins – a boy and a girl she named Repentance and Regret – who have since disappeared without trace. These facts have set in train a series of events which have led to blackmail, abduction, arson and murder; someone is killing those with any knowledge of the earl’s first marriage and is trying to find his children – most importantly his legal heir – likely with similarly nefarious intent.
In the previous book, An Unnatural Vice, we discovered that the twins – who go by Pen and Greta – have been hiding in plain sight for the past decade, earning money and acclaim as the Flying Starlings, the music-hall trapeze act Clem takes Rowley Green (the object of his affections) to see near the beginning of book one, An Unseen Attraction (hah! Clever, Ms. Charles – they’re an ‘attraction’ and are also ‘unseen’ for who they really are ;)). Following Moreton’s death, the killer – whose identity and motivations remain unknown – steps up his attempts to find the twins, which is when Justin Lazarus, medium extraordinaire and self-proclaimed, all-round shifty bastard finds himself in big trouble. Forced to flee his home – and London – in fear for his life, when An Unsuitable Heir opens, Justin and Nathaniel Roy are hiding out at Nathaniel’s house in the country while Mark attempts to contact Pen and Greta and keep them safely hidden until such time as Pen can stake his claim to the title.
Readers of An Unnatural Vice will already know that Pen wants nothing to do with the earldom and will have some idea as to why. Mark quickly discovers this for himself when he manages to meet up with Pen, seemingly by accident at first, and inveigles him into going for a drink. He pretends to be unaware of Pen’s true identity, and is, for want of a better word, gobsmacked by his physicality and presence. Pen is gorgeous, with an athletic build, beautiful long hair and wears gold earrings and face paint – and Mark is captivated. He’s a pretty no-nonsense sort of bloke, and to him, beauty is beauty in whatever shape or form it takes; Pen is beautiful and Pen is… Pen. Mark would dearly love to get to know him better, but has to remind himself that Pen is the subject of an investigation and that Pen, Greta and two of his dearest friends – Clem and Nathaniel (because of Justin) – are in danger until Pen is installed as the Earl of Moreton.
But Pen does not want to live as an earl; in fact he doesn’t want to live as a man – or rather, he doesn’t want to live ‘just’ as a man. Because he isn’t. Nor is he a woman. He’s Pen. He’s a Flying Starling. He’s who he is and some days he wants to wear face paint and chiffon scarves; others he’s content to grow stubble and look in the mirror to see his large, well-muscled form and recognise himself. I can’t claim any expertise whatsoever in this area, but I know K.J. Charles is someone who takes great pains to get things like this right and I trust her judgement. All I can say is that her portrayal of Pen as gender-fluid is extremely well done and the way she writes him as sometimes being completely uncomfortable in his own skin and his reactions to it ring very true and made it easy for someone like me – a middle-aged, heterosexual woman – to understand his thoughts and emotions.
When Mark acts out of a need to keep Pen safe, it causes a deep rift between them; but it soon emerges that getting Pen out of London and down to the family seat at Crowmarsh might not have been the safest thing after all. A couple of ‘accidents’ point to the killer having followed the twins out of London, and while Pen’s uncle and would-be-earl, Desmond Taillefer, and his son try to downplay the threat, Clem sends Mark to the house in the hope that he will be able to get to the bottom of things and keep Pen alive.
I think it’s fair to say that An Unsuitable Heir is weighted firmly towards the mystery, which wasn’t really a problem, as I desperately wanted to know whodunnit and why. Pen’s inner conflict – over what it would mean to live the rest of his life as someone else – is extremely well done, as is his confrontational relationship with Desmond, who regards Pen as pretty much an abomination. Fortunately, Pen’s sister Greta is very much in his corner; she’s fierce and determined, and while she freely admits that she would like to have the settled, comfortable life of the sister of an earl, she understands perfectly what being forced to become something he is not will do to Pen and is prepared to stand by him. But all this – which is extremely insightful and well-written – means that the love-story takes a bit of a back seat and consequently feels less well-developed than those in the earlier books. That said, the pairing works well. Both Mark and Pen are different to the norm; Mark because of his disability (he was born with one arm) and Pen because of his fluid sexuality, so both of them have had to deal with prejudice and suspicion of one form or another for almost all their lives, which helps them to understand and empathise with each other.
The twists and turns of the plot make for an exciting finale, and I didn’t see the identity of the bad guy coming until shortly before the reveal. As in the all the best sensation novels, all ends well, and we leave our heroes – all of them – safe happy and looking forward to the future.
I love the way K.J. Charles has incorporated the elements of Victorian popular fiction into her plotlines; the writing is sublime and the characters are three-dimensional people with lives of their own whom I imagine laughing over a pint or two and bantering with Phyllis at the Jack and Knave long after I’ve finished reading their stories. Even though my final rating for An Unnatural Heir is a little lower than my grades for the other two books (principally because of the slightly underdeveloped romance) I am nonetheless recommending it and the entire Sins of the Cities trilogy very strongly.