Unfit to Print by K.J. Charles

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When crusading lawyer Vikram Pandey sets out in search of a missing youth, his investigations take him to Holywell Street, London’s most notorious address. He expects to find a disgraceful array of sordid bookshops. He doesn’t expect one of them to be run by the long-lost friend whose disappearance and presumed death he’s been mourning for thirteen years.

Gil Lawless became a Holywell Street bookseller for his own reasons, and he’s damned if he’s going to apologise or listen to moralising from anyone. Not even Vikram; not even if the once-beloved boy has grown into a man who makes his mouth water.

Now the upright lawyer and the illicit bookseller need to work together to track down the missing youth. And on the way, they may even learn if there’s more than just memory and old affection binding them together…

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles always finds fresh, new angles to pursue in her stories and peoples them with characters in unusual walks of life – and her new novella, Unfit to Print, is no exception.  Set in late Victorian London, one of the protagonists is a purveyor of naughty books and has a shop in Holywell Street, which was, at that time, the centre of London’s porn trade; while the other is a somewhat uptight lawyer who views the whole business with a degree of distaste.  The novella boasts a mystery to be solved, a relationship to be rekindled and a mountain of filth to be shifted, and all of it is deftly and expertly done in well under two hundred pages.

Vikram Pandey and Gilbert Lawless are from minority – albeit fairly well-do-do – backgrounds, and met at boarding school several years before the story opens.  Vik’s father had been a high-ranking government official in India, while Gil is the result of a liaison between a black housemaid and a wealthy gentleman who publicly acknowledged him, paid for his education and treated him as a son.  Gil and Vik bonded at school and became the best of friends in spite of the fundamental differences in their natures, Gil seeming never to have a care in the world while Vik was always a little uptight and reserved. But one day when they were sixteen, both their lives were upended when Gil disappeared without warning or a word to anyone.  Vik was devastated, but his enquiries at school were always met with stony silence and disapproval, and eventually he stopped asking about or looking for Gil, believing him to be dead. He must be, or surely he’d have got word to Vik somehow, to tell him what happened.

In fact, Gil was removed from school and pretty much cast onto the streets on the day his father died and his half-brother inherited the estate.  Gil begged and scraped a living and now runs a small bookshop on Holywell Street near the Strand which, at that time, contained the largest concentration of porn shops in England.  Gilbert Lawless, Bookseller is Gil’s two-fingered-salute to the brother who, he later learned, cheated him out of his father’s last bequest, as well as to the “kind of respectability that means keeping other people in line while you do as you please.”

He is surprised when his cousin Percy asks him to attend Matthew Lawes’ funeral – and not at all surprised when he discovers there was an ulterior motive for inviting him. It seems his uncle was a connoisseur of pornography of all sorts, and faced with a massive library of books and photographs which could cause the family huge embarrassment, (not to mention large fines and possible imprisonment!)  they want Gil to take it all away and dispose of it.  Gil isn’t interested in most of it, but some of the books – one of them particularly rare – catch his eye, so he decides he might as well get what he can out of it, and agrees to have the lot transported to his shop.  It’s when he’s looking through some of the photographs that he recognises the likeness of a young lad – a rent boy – named Errol, who was found dead in a local alley just three weeks earlier.

Vik is now a solicitor who divides his time between paying clients and Pro Bono work for the poor Indian workers barely ekeing out an existence in the East End. He is asked one day to visit the Gupta family in Shad Thames (the area of London around Tower Bridge), who are worried about their sixteen-year-old son, Sunil, who has disappeared. Vik realises the young man has most likely been selling himself in order to make money for his family, and, recalling his own distress at the disappearance of his dearest friend so many years ago, says that he will do his best to help.

Sunil left his family a framed, obviously professionally-taken photograph, so Vik decides to start at the photographers – which is based in Holywell Street. He knows perfectly well the sort of trade for which the street is renowned, and unsurprisingly, the shopkeepers – all of whom could face indecency charges should they utter the wrong word in the wrong place – are reluctant to say anything to a well-dressed, well-spoken man asking questions. Vik has just left his latest dead end when he finds himself standing in front of the shop sign for Gilbert Lawless, Bookseller – and can’t believe his eyes.

The longed-for reunion is awkward and somewhat stilted at first, on Vik’s part at least, because Gil is as breezily open and friendly as he ever was. Gil is at a bit of a loss to understand his old friend’s bitterness, and the way these two former friends gradually re-forge their friendship and come to an understanding of how they’ve changed and how – and if – they can fit together now as they once did is poignant and very well done. Also well done is the background to the story; observations and discussions about the sex trade in Victorian times are pertinent and never preachy or dull, and also shed light on the personalities of both protagonists as they reconnect and begin to re-evaluate things they thought they knew about themselves and each other.

Even though this is a novella, the relationship between Gil and Vik doesn’t feel rushed, mostly, I suspect, because the author does such a good job of conveying the depth of the bond that developed between them as boys, meaning that what transpires between them in the story ‘proper’ is completely believable as an extension of that connection. The mystery plot reaches a dramatic resolution – perhaps a little quickly, but that’s not something that worried me overmuch. So many novellas try to do too much in too little space, but Ms. Charles gets it just right, keeping the focus of the story firmly on the love story while bringing the plot to a satisfying conclusion.

Unfit to Print is a uniquely entertaining and layered tale that’s bursting at the seams with humour, tenderness and period detail of the sort not found in many (if any!) historical romances. Fans of the author are going to need no persuasion to one-click, and if you’ve never read her before, this expertly crafted and immensely satisfying read would be a great place to start.

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