First, I made the embedded cover real big in this review so y’all can see our heroine Susan’s face. It is the most non-swoony face I have ever, ever seen on a romance novel cover, and that is so true to her character, I love it. Even the arms are folded! Susan Lazarus is not fucking around.
This is the second book in the Lilywhite Boys series, which follows two con men and thieves in late Victorian London. This series is actually connected to Charles’s prior series, Sins of the Cities, as Susan is the adoptive daughter of Justin Lazarus, the former spiritualist (and scammer) turned enquiry agent. Now it’s about twenty years later, and Susan herself has taken up the family business, making a name for herself by being tough as nails, and very, very good at her job. Her former lover is one of the Lilywhite boys himself, Templeton Lane (formerly James Vane, confirming this also takes place in the same universe as her first series, Society of Gentleman). They were sort of childhood sweethearts, but their relationship ended with a terrible break between them that left Templeton on a boat to do hard labor in Australia, and with Susan as an enemy.
Years later, they are on opposite sides of the law. Templeton is nearly killed when a jewel theft goes wrong. He finds the body of the owner when he breaks in, and he in turn is found standing over the body of the owner, at which point he makes a run for it. Having clearly been framed and not wanting to drag his only two friends (and criminal associates) down with him, the only person he knows who might possibly believe him innocent of the murders (the valet was killed, too) and also might be able to help clear his name, is one Susan Lazarus.
This is a second chance romance, with elements of enemies to lovers near the beginning, so it’s a twofer. Also, it’s a murder mystery! And historical fiction. And it’s very well written. And the way that Susan and Templeton come back together is so very good. They’re both such emotionally complex people with such different personalities, but their chemistry feels effortless, and their conflicts and struggles poignant. Susan is a badass, and Templeton is some sort of gentle bear/puppy combo with criminal tendencies mostly to do with thieving. As both puppies and bears are known for stealing shit that doesn’t belong to them (mostly to eat), I feel my comparison is apt.
I really can’t emphasize enough how much it upsets me that y’all (except for Emmalita) still aren’t reading K.J. Charles as much as she deserves. She deserves to be a bestselling author with awards threatening to collapse her shelves. I think I’m finally going to have to do a deep dive and finish out the books in her back catalogue I haven’t gotten to yet, because I don’t know when she’s publishing her next book and it’s making me anxious.