This guest review is from Aarya Marsden.
Aarya Marsden is a pseudonym for an Indian-American college student and long-time romance reader. Her favorite authors include Ilona Andrews, Nalini Singh, Lucy Parker, Kresley Cole, Alisha Rai, Lisa Kleypas, Alyssa Cole, Tessa Dare, Meredith Duran, Mina V. Esguerra, Kate Clayborn, and many more.
You can follow @Aarya_Marsden on Twitter, where she gushes about romance novels and is a firm advocate for a happily-ever-after.
Back in November 2018, I tweeted out a request for one of my favorite plot devices: a romantic mystery in a house party.
I didn’t get many responses, mostly because it’s not that common of a plot device. However, one of my mutuals responded, “You’re in luck, KJ Charles is writing an f/f story set at a hunting house party Sounds like it would fit your request.” Ever since then, I’ve been eagerly looking forward to Proper English and was ecstatic to receive an ARC.
Why do I love house party mysteries so much? It combines two of my favorite plot elements: house parties and a whodunnit mystery. One of my first historical romance authors, Stephanie Laurens, wrote this on a regular basis and cemented my love of the trope. In A Rake’s Vow, there’s a houseful of eccentric guests and poor relatives, a mysterious ghost stealing jewelry and injuring guests, and a heroine determined to clear her brother’s name when all evidence points to him.
There’s no spectral haunting here, but there are murders and scandals afoot. I was grinning like a fool the entire time. Proper English also reminded me why the house party mystery plot device is so excellent:
- It’s a house party! Even without any mysteries, it is certain that someone is sneaking out of their bedchamber to visit a mystery lover. Forget musical chairs – the most popular game here is musical beds!
- It is also certain that another guest will stumble upon a scandalous affair (in the flesh, as it were). Scandal! Sex! Engagements made and engagements broken! Do all these things happen in Proper English? Yes, yes, and yes.
- There is an 67% chance that if someone willingly goes to a house party, they will leave with their reputation in tatters. This is an empirical fact, measured by a decade of reading romance. I cannot feel sorry for any of the poor fools who thought it was a good idea to visit Rodington Court (sorry, Pat. I know you only went there for a shooting party). They were practically begging for a ruined reputation!
- And as everyone knows: what happens in a house party never stays in a house party. Even if all the aristocrats can agree to keep their mouths shut, they’ll never silence the servants’ grapevine, otherwise known as the most dangerous rumor mill in England.
- These are bored English aristocrats who don’t have to work for a living. They only have five settings: drink tea, make small talk about the weather, shoot some birds for sport, engage in an illicit affair, or kill someone. It’s not their fault that their options are so limited! And when they’re cloistered in a house with no other entertainment… well, can you really blame anyone for the inevitable murder? Very fun for the reader, not as fun for the murder victim.
- A house party is a variation of the forced-proximity trope. Even though the guests can theoretically leave the house party and go back home, the Laws of Romancelandia almost always forbid it. And if forced-proximity is delicious in a couple’s romantic arc, it is even more so when conflicting personalities can’t escape each other
- “The carriage wheel fell off! So sorry, Lord Cholmondeley, but we cannot possibly drive you to the train station. Yes, we know that you were caught en déshabillé last night with the host’s son. The dinner bell will ring promptly at 6 pm, no matter how awkward the proceedings will be.”
- “The storm last night caused the river to flood and made the roads impassable. I’m afraid that Miss Featherstonhaugh will have to stay and recuperate. The doctors say that she shouldn’t be moved with a broken ankle. Don’t worry – her reputation should be safe despite the alarming number of rakes who have recently taken residence.”
- There is a fog so terrible that one cannot walk ten meters without running into a tree. Dear me, Lady Worcester, is it that important to return to London? Surely your unmarried daughter’s ‘delicate condition’ can be taken care of here?”
- Will it be of any surprise to you that any attempt to escape Rodington Court in Proper English is thwarted by the hands of fate? I think not.
And the number one reason why I love the house party murder mystery so much: it’s Romancelandia’s version of the board game Clue.
Think about it: there is a houseful of eccentric and secretive guests. A murder has been committed and they all know that the killer is in their midst. Oh, they’ll try and blame the servants but you know the truth: the person sitting next to you at dinner could have done it. The person you’re having an affair with could have done it. Your beloved twin sister could have done it. Even worse, everyone thinks that you might have done it. Even if you’re completely innocent, you become defensive and flustered in an attempt to prove your innocence. Longtime friendships turn tense and rife with suspicion. Unsavory secrets are drawn out into the open; there is nowhere to hide when the spotlight is shining on you. Everyone has a secret, everyone has a motive, and no one has a foolproof alibi. And we’ll all be lucky if only one murder is committed before the police arrive.
I haven’t talked too much about the book’s premise yet, and that is intentional. It’s difficult to write a review about a mystery plot line because I never want to give anything away. The delight of a mystery comes from exploring every twist and turn in the prose. Even the identity of the victim is a giant spoiler. Still, I want to gush about the incredible cast of characters without revealing the mystery element. What better way to do so than to break down the story into the game Clue?
Clue: Rodington Court Edition
The Place: Rodington Court, family seat of the earls of Witton. A “large, aggressively defensive sixteenth-century building in solid yellow-tinted stone, squat and square. It was clearly built to protect against marauding Scots, the weather, or both.”
The Time: September 1902
The Cause of the Gathering: A three-week shooting party that is meant to be a relaxing and uneventful affair (“meant to” being the operative part of that phrase).
The List of Suspects (And One Murder Victim)
Miss Patricia Merton, Our Investigative Heroine and All-England Ladies’ Champion For Target Shooting
Suspect Profile: Pat has come to Rodington Court for one reason and one reason only: shooting. Having to put up with a houseful of unpleasant strangers was not part of the plan. Falling in love with her host’s delightful fiancée was not part of the plan. But how can she help herself? Fenella is so charming and so bubbly and so irresistible. The less said about her ample bosom, the better. But now that the topic has been brought up… it really must be said that there is nothing wrong with Fenella’s bosom. Pat cannot stress this fact enough. But these thoughts must stay in her head, because Fenella is going to be married. To a man who doesn’t deserve her. Damnation. No amount of pheasant shooting is going to fix this, is it?
Miss Fenella Carruth, Our Affianced Heroine and Possessor of a Gurgling Laugh
Suspect Profile: Fenella is engaged. For the third time, it should be noted. She’s gotten away with the scandal of jilting two former fiancés – but really, a third jilting is not at all the thing to do in Polite Society. And even though Fenella presents an image of a silly and frothy heiress with no brains, all she wants is for someone to see the real her. Someone to notice her. Someone to appreciate her. Someone named Patricia Merton.
Mr. William Merton, Our Investigative Heroine’s Older and Favorite Brother
Suspect Profile: Bill is only here at this dratted party for his longtime friend Jimmy Yoxall. His longtime engaged friend Jimmy Yoxall. His longtime engaged friend Jimmy Yoxall, who is marrying a woman he barely knows so he can acquire her inheritance. No wonder Bill is so disapproving of Jimmy and Fenella. There can’t possibly be any other reason for his disapproval.
The Honorable James Yoxall, Affianced to Our Charming and Gurgling Heroine
Suspect Profile: Jimmy is not pleased with the invasion of unwanted guests and relatives. His insufferable sister and loathsome brother-in-law are not welcome guests. What does a man have to do to shoot birds in peace? As for Fenella… well, is it really a crime to marry a strange girl for her money? Someone has to save the earldom from financial ruin.
Lady Anna Haworth, Sister of Jimmy Yaxon and Wife of Maurice Haworth
Suspect Profile: Anna has a cocaine habit, a husband she dislikes but refuses to leave, and a lover that she flaunts in front of her family. Surely everyone can agree that it’s Not Polite to bring your lover to your parents’ house?
Mr. Maurice Haworth, Husband of Lady Anna and All-Around Terrible Person
Suspect Profile: Maurice is perhaps the most ill-mannered, uncouth, and rude man in existence. He insults everyone and lives to create conflict. For some reason, his in-laws refuse to berate his outrageous behavior, much to the outrage of all their guests. Surely there can’t be a more unlikable man alive.
Mr. Jack Bouvier-Lynes, Gambler and Lover of Lady Anna Haworth
Suspect Profile: Jack isn’t Lady Anna’s first indiscretion, but he certainly is her most recent. A handsome, charming man who gets along with everyone, Jack’s presence in the household creates an unbearable amount of awkwardness as everyone pretends not to recognize his status as Anna’s lover.
Miss Victoria Singh, Goddaughter of the Countess of Witton
Suspect Profile: Miss Singh’s idea of good time is not a shooting house party – she’s a vegetarian and a member of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Still, the Countess of Witton is here and Victoria can tolerate anything to spend time with her beloved godmother. As a woman of remarkable intelligence and sense, Victoria shouldn’t have to tolerate another guest’s offensive and racist remarks. And none of her hosts will come to her rescue!
Mr. Preston Keynes, Jimmy’s Friend and Sportsman
Suspect Profile: Mr. Keynes has little to do with the Yoxall family and just wanted an opportunity to attend a shooting party. He certainly didn’t sign up for any of this family drama. Still, he’s quick-tempered and easy to provoke into violence. A dangerous combination, especially in a house with so many conflicting personalities and disagreements.
The Earl and Countess of Witton
Suspect Profile: The Earl and Countess of Witton are not ordinary members of the aristocracy. They’ve recently lost all their money in a financial crash and are depending on their son Jimmy to make a wealthy match. Underneath their polite exterior, it is clear that the entire family has Yoxall Family Secrets – secrets that can never be made public due to fear of an unknown threat.
The List of Potential Murder Weapons/Methods of Death
- Sporting Rifles
- Miss Patricia Merton’s Monogrammed Harrington Top-Break Revolver
- A Bow and Arrow
- A Sikh Kirpan
- An Unfortunate Accident
- Drug Overdose
The List of Potential Murder Locations in Rodington Court
- The Shooting Grounds
- Miss Patricia Merton’s Bedroom
- The East Wing Study
- The Drawing-Room
- The Dining Room
- The South Lawn
- A Room in the East Wing Ground Floor Corridor
- A Room Adjacent to the East Wing Study
- The Lake
I know the novel isn’t a choose-your-own adventure murder extravaganza, but the author really does an excellent job of casting suspicion on all potential suspects. While I could cross out a few obvious innocent bystanders, I wasn’t sure about the identity of the murderer until the very end. The book feels like a novelization of Clue – even though the murder location and weapon are evident during the discovery of the dead body, the perpetrator really could have been anyone. And the way that the guests interrogate each other about their alibis and motivations reminded me of the board game, too. I really adore house party murder mysteries.
The romance between Pat and Fen is divine. There is some initial angsting because Fen is affianced, but thankfully that doesn’t take up the majority of the book. I am leery when a protagonist starts the book in another relationship because usually a) the book takes far too long to end the former relationship and b) there is prolonged cheating (emotional or physical), which I dislike immensely. This is not the case in Proper English, to my profound relief.
I like the angst of will-they-or-won’t-they (which the book has in spades), but also enjoy it when a couple can act sappy and loving (which the book also has in spades). The balance between angst and fluff is perfect for any reader who wants relationship conflict but doesn’t want to be stressed out during the entire time. Reading about Fen and Pat’s love story feels like munching on marshmallows next to a cozy fireplace. The outside is crisp and toasted but the inside is filled with gooey and sweet marshmallow heaven. The contrast of crisp and gooey, just like the combination of angst and fluff in a romance, is what makes the experience so delightful.
Pat and Fen are a well-balanced couple. While Pat is sensible and down-to-earth, she is also incredibly kind and supportive of her friends. Fen’s frivolity and carefree nature are a perfect match for Pat. Fen and Pat are truly a partnership of equals: they solve murder mysteries by day and make love by candlelight. By the end of the book, I was hoping for a spin-off series where Pat and Fen travel across the continent and solve mysteries together. When they’re together, they become more happy and generous versions of themselves. In my opinion, this is a mark of a perfect romance novel: the amount of pure joy they radiate while basking in each other’s presence is enough to make any romance skeptic a Fen/Pat shipper. Their happiness is contagious enough to spread off the pages and into me. I don’t record myself reading books, but I imagine a tape of me reading Proper English would show me squealing with delight and sighing every two seconds.
Even though a lot of book focuses on the mystery, Proper English’s central storyline is the romance. Where there is mystery, Pat and Fen are solving it together and their relationship develops during the mystery arc. The romantic and mystery components are intertwined and inseparable. If you don’t normally like non-romantic mystery novels, you may enjoy this one because the romantic element is always omnipresent.
I am also very impressed by the depiction of Victoria Singh, an Indian woman born and bred in England. It goes without saying but I may as well repeat it: non-white people did live in England prior to 2000. Shocking, I know. You wouldn’t be able to tell from most historical romance novels, but it is the truth. In particular, I am very grateful for the following exchange:
“Is there respect in killing single birds?” Miss Singh asked.
“Someone killed every bird, fish or animal I’ve ever eaten,” Pat said. “And at least the partridge I shoot has a chance to dodge, unlike the chicken whose neck I wring. Of course, you don’t eat chicken either. Do you know, Miss Singh, I have far more respect for that stance than I do for those who eat meat but shudder at killing. In fact, I think you’re quite right.” Miss Singh’s brows went up. Pat opened her hands. “Not right, as such, but your position is entirely consistent. If I condemned shooting wild birds, I could hardly approve of eating domesticated beasts.”
“And conversely, if I believed that eating animals was right, it would be foolish to balk at shooting them. In other words, we hold the same view, but from opposite perspectives.”
“It sounds like it.” Pat offered her a smile. Miss Singh smiled back.
When I first read about Miss Singh, I was worried about her depiction as someone who opposes killing animals due to a “moral stance based on [her] views of how animals should be treated.” Everyone else in the shooting party supported hunting and I was afraid that Miss Singh would be portrayed as some sort of religious and unreasonable freak.
The truth could not be farther from that supposition. Miss Singh is a remarkably intelligent and dignified woman. Not only does she stay firm to her religious and moral beliefs, she and Pat have this fascinating and calm debate about the topic of hunting. Furthermore, any attempts to demean Miss Singh (for her race or vegetarian diet) are instantly challenged and struck down. The story does not depict a utopian England where Miss Singh’s race is ignored, but also ensures that she has friends in her corner to defend her from any unsavory attacks. By the end of the book, she became one of my favorite characters and (as if I wasn’t already hoping for more Pat/Fen books!) I started to hope for a Miss Singh spinoff.
Without reading the book and relying on my “Clue: Rodington Court Edition,” who do you think is the murderer? The victim? And what about the murder weapon and location? I hope the setup intrigues you enough to pick up the book. Proper English is a wonderful Edwardian House Party Murder Mystery and an adorable f/f historical romance. I wore a silly grin the entire time I was reading it and I hope you will, too.