Once upon a time a boy from a noble family fell in love with a girl from the gutter. It went as badly as you’d expect.
Seventeen years later, Susan Lazarus is a renowned detective, and Templeton Lane is a jewel thief. She’s tried to arrest him, and she’s tried to shoot him. They’ve never tried to talk.
Then Templeton is accused of a vicious double murder. Now there’s a manhunt out for him, the ports are watched, and even his best friends have turned their backs. If he can’t clear his name, he’ll hang.
There’s only one person in England who might help Templeton now…assuming she doesn’t want to kill him herself.
K.J. Charles proves – once again – that she’s at the top of her game with Gilded Cage (the sequel to her late-Victorian-jewel-thief-caper Any Old Diamonds), which combines an intriguing murder mystery with a superbly written and swoon-worthy second chance romance. It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s poignant and it’s brilliantly observed, featuring wonderfully written, flawed characters who leap off the page, a villain worthy of all the boos and hisses and a high-stakes plot.
When jewel thief and one half of the Lilywhite Boys, Templeton Lane, encountered enquiry agent Susan Lazarus in Any Old Diamonds, it was clear there was a shared history between them – and that it wasn’t one that either of them remembered with fondness. In Gilded Cage, readers learn the truth of that history – a story of young love gone badly wrong – after Templeton is accused of a double murder and Susan is the only person he feels he can turn to for help.
Against the advice of his associate Jerry Crozier – whom Templeton believes has lost his nerve since he fell in love – Templeton decides to go alone to a house in Mortlake in order to steal a set of highly valuable opals. Things are going as planned until he enters the bedroom where the safe is located and discovers the house’s owner lying on the floor in a pool of blood. When a terrified servant wakes the rest of the house, Templeton gets out (not before grabbing the jewels though!), evading his pursuers by swimming across the Thames (risky in the cold and dark) and then makes his way to the East End shop belonging to their regular fence, Stan, where he finds Jerry waiting for him. Both are furious with Templeton for being so careless, not just of his personal safety, but of theirs, too, and tell him that he needs to get out of the country fast or face the hangman’s noose. Angry and hurt at what he sees as a betrayal – although he does grudgingly admit to having cocked up big time – and unable to leave England owing to an increased police presence at the ports, Templeton needs to clear his name, which is how he ends up seeking out Susan Lazarus and hoping she won’t turn him in herself before he’s had a chance to explain.
What follows is part second chance romance part murder mystery in which the two leads are finally able to talk about their shared past while also gaining a new appreciation for and understanding of each other and who they are now. Susan is a wonderful heroine. Fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense, perceptive and loyal with just a hint of vulnerability she keeps well hidden, she’s not thrilled about seeing the man who broke her heart seventeen years earlier, but also knows that whatever else he is, he’s not a murderer and agrees to help him prove his innocence by finding the true culprit. And although Templeton comes across as a bit of a git to start with – his temper-tantrum over what he sees as Jerry’s ‘defection’ and new-found happiness causes Templeton to make very poor decisions and behave like a petulant kid – he is gradually revealed to be a decent, thoughtful man, his obvious respect for Susan, his acceptance of her bisexuality, and his being prepared to follow her lead (both in the investigation and in their personal interactions) more than making up for his earlier poor judgment and selfishness.
Their relationship is superbly done, the chemistry sizzles and I loved watching them talk through the issues that lie between them and find their way back to each other. The dialogue – laced with wit and very astute social observation – sparkles, and the plot very cleverly weaves together the threads of past and present to create an immensely satisfying three-dimensional story that has fun poking fun at and playing around with genre tropes.
As is always the case with this author, the writing is superb, the characters are fully-rounded, flawed individuals, and the whole novel is permeated by a wonderful sense of time and place. Most impressive of all is Susan, a woman who faces the same challenges and restrictions faced by all women at the time (late 19th century) with regard to personal freedom and independence, but who is nonetheless forging her own path as best she can, and the HEA is both original and perfectly in character as well as being thoroughly satisfying. My one criticism of the story is that because most of the investigation takes place off-page, the sense of urgency – Templeton stands to hang if found guilty, after all – isn’t quite as strong as it should have been.
Although the book works perfectly well as a standalone, there are some lovely shout-outs to both the Sins of the Cities and the Society of Gentlemen; Templeton Lane is really James Vane, whose Great Uncle was Richard Vane – the mention of the slender, elderly man who taught Templeton the art of silent footsteps was just lovely! – and we get a little peek into the home life of Susan’s ‘guvnors’, Nathaniel Roy and Justin Lazarus, who is clearly as much of a shifty bastard as he ever was.
Gilded Cage is a fantastic read and one no fan of historical romance should miss. K.J. Charles is one of the very few writers in the genre who really understands it, and given the current deplorable state of HR in general, a true gem like this is not to be missed.