A shooting party at the Earl of Witton’s remote country house is a high treat for champion shot Patricia Merton—until unexpected guests turn the social atmosphere dangerously sour.
That’s not Pat’s biggest problem. She’s visiting her old friend, the Earl’s heir Jimmy Yoxall—but she wants to spend a lot more time with Jimmy’s fiancée. The irrepressible Miss Fenella Carruth, with her laughing eyes and lush curves, is the most glorious woman Pat’s ever met, and it quickly becomes impossible to remember why she needs to stay at arm’s length.
But while the women’s attraction grows, the tensions at Rodington Court get worse. Affairs, secrets, betrayals, and blackmail come to light. And when a body is discovered with a knife between the shoulderblades, it’s going to take Pat and Fen’s combined talents to prevent the murderer destroying all their lives.
K.J. Charles’ latest book is a companion piece to Think of England, in which readers were first introduced to Pat Morton and Fenella (Fen) Carruth, a pair of formidable ladies who seem already to be rather adept at solving mysteries. Proper English takes place a couple of years before those events, and is their origin story, if you will. It’s a witty, sharply observed, sweetly romantic and clever country house murder-mystery; in short, everything you’d expect from K.J. Charles (including the dead body. Maybe especially the dead body!)
Patricia Merton is at a bit of a crossroads in her life. The youngest of five children – with four older brothers – her father never subscribed to the idea that girls couldn’t and shouldn’t do the things boys did, and he’s grown up to be a confident, competent young woman who knows who she is and makes no apologies for being different to the average eyelash-fluttering, simpering miss. She’s spent much of her adult life running her older brother’s household, but he’s recently married, and Pat knows continuing to live under the same roof would be a recipe for disaster. So she’s taking some time to think about what she wants to do next, and is travelling to attend a small shooting party in the north of England, looking forward to spending time with her brother Bill, her old friend, Jimmy, and a few other gentlemen. She’s a champion shot –the All England Ladies’ Champion in fact – and is pleased to be spending a few days where she can be as mannish as she likes and nobody will care.
But when Bill meets her at the station, she’s disappointed to discover that her plans for a few days shooting with the chaps have been upended because Jimmy’s new fiancée, Miss Fenella Caruth (daughter of a wealthy industrialist) is present, as are Jimmy’s sister and her loathesome husband, his parents, the Earl and Countess of Witton and a handful of other guests. Pat’s enthusiasm for the houseparty wanes; until later that evening she makes the acquaintance of Jimmy’s fiancée, who is quite the loveliest woman Pat has ever seen.
At first, she appears to be just the sort of fluffy, frivolous young woman Pat usually avoids at all cost, but when, the next day, they get to spend a bit of time together (Pat is teaching her to shoot), Pat begins to realise that Fen is more than she appears, and that beneath the polished exterior is a woman who longs to be taken seriously and seen for more than her pretty face (and enormous fortune).
It’s not long before Pat and Fen realise there’s something more than friendship growing between them, but their delight at having found, in each other, someone who really sees them for who they are, has to be put on hold when one of the party is found dead, an ornamental knife buried in his back, and a dreadful storm both confines them all to the house and prevents the immediate attendance of the local police.
Proper English is a proper English romp of a story that combines a Christie-esque country house murder mystery, a tender, sensual romance and a healthy dose of social comment that’s never dry or overdone.
Pat and Fen are opposites in many ways; Pat is pragmatic, no-nonsense and outdoorsy, shrewd, self-possessed and non-judgmental, while Fen has been brought up to be little more than an ornament to a man. There’s a wonderful moment in the book when she expresses her frustration at the way young women like her are brought up to act helpless and brainless while being simultaneously mocked and despised for displaying the very qualities thought so important in a young lady who wants to attract a husband. Fen is a natural care-taker and will go out of her way to make other people feel comfortable, even when that effort isn’t reciprocated, while Pat is less inclined to care what people think of her, but is sufficiently intuitive that she doesn’t stomp all over other people’s feelings while going her own way. She and Fen fit together so beautifully, both of them yearning for someone with whom they can really be themselves, and the way they discover each other and the true women behind their facades is superbly done and wonderful to read.
The mystery plot – while not as high-stakes as the one in Think of England – is nonetheless well thought-out, as we learn, along with Pat, that Bill is investigating some financial irregularities that seem to point the finger at the Earl. Ms. Charles keeps this happily bubbling along in the background until she’s ready to bring it front and centre, and it’s classic stuff; a group of disparate individuals with secrets to hide, agendas to pursue, and oodles of mounting tension, a truly nasty villain (who of course gets his just desserts) and our wily, amateur sleuths.
Pat and Fen are great characters – I liked them in Think of England, and liked them even more here – their romance is lovely, the secondary cast is nicely fleshed-out, and it will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the author when I say that the sense of time and place she instils into the story is impeccable. Proper English is a delight from start to finish and highly recommended.