This wasn’t nearly as good as Think of England, one of my top five books from 2019, but it was still top quality, as I’ve come to expect from my K.J. Charles books. Proper English is an indirect prequel to Think of England, as it takes place two years earlier than the previous book, and shows how Fen and Pat met (they are together at the time Think of England is grappling with its own disastrous house party). But you really don’t need to read either book to enjoy the other (but you should go read Think of England ASAP because it is so good).
Our main character is Patricia Merton (but absolutely don’t call her that; she goes by Pat, thank you very much). Pat is a shooting champion who is in the middle of rethinking her life, as her eldest brother has recently married, and she no longer feels comfortable running his household as she’s done since she was fifteen, because she doesn’t want to step on his new wife’s toes, or feel as if she isn’t being useful. Pat has absolutely no interest in the idea of men or marriage, so she figures her fate is to end up as some wealthy woman’s companion, although she secretly cherishes the idea of opening up a shooting school for ladies.
Pat and her brother Bill have been invited for several weeks to a shooting party in the country at their old friend Jimmy’s house. Jimmy is actually the son of an Earl, and though it was only supposed to be the four of them (their friend Preston was invited as well), somehow due to a lot of unforeseen, clashing circumstances, a lot of other unwelcome parties make themselves known, including Jimmy’s new fiancé Fenella Carruth, his sister and brother-in-law Anna and Maurice, his mother’s goddaughter, Victoria Singh, as well as a guest Jimmy’s sister has also invited, a man called Jack. It’s an odd group of people to begin with, but Jimmy’s brother-in-law immediately proves himself to be a first grade asshole and shit-stirrer. On top of this, the entirety of Jimmy’s family seems to be letting Maurice walk all over them and do as he pleases, even though he is responsible for financially ruining their family. The whole situation is perplexing and disturbing to Pat, who just wanted lots of relaxing time in the wide outdoors.
And though it does happen rather late in the book, this is a also a murder mystery. I’ll give you three guesses as to who is murdered, but you’ll probably only need one. Though the Earl’s house is large and full of people, including servants, this is essentially a locked room mystery. A storm has effectively locked all parties inside the property, due to the flooding of the local river cutting off the road. Because there are secrets everyone there wishes to keep to themselves (including Pat and Fenella, who embark rather quickly on a romantic relationship), and which might be dug up in the course of a full police investigation, Pat decides to try and solve the mystery herself.
Tensions are super high for the duration of the house party, up until the murder. Every character has something hide, but you’re not sure if it’s murder. For me, though, the sweetness of the relationship between Pat and Fen offset the horrible things going on. Pat is immediately struck with Fen as the most beautiful woman she’s ever seen, curvy and easy-mannered and so good at making people feel at ease and welcome (I kept picturing Hayley Atwell in my head), but she also misjudges Fen at first in the way that all people do, thinking her shallow and not very bright (traits which Fen quickly shows her she is wrong about). Their tentative courtship was so heartwarming. Pat has been alone for her whole life, not really considering women as a romantic option, as she was taught that her passionate female friendships, though common at school, are something women grow out of when they are adults, and can appreciate what men have to offer. (She had such a relationship with her friend Louisa, also recently married herself, but it’s apparent it was relatively chaste and never went beyond shared kisses.) Fen, on the other hand, has no such reservations, and pursues Pat as openly as she can. It’s all very adorable.
This was only 200 pages long, but it packed a lot into those pages. You could do a lot worse than this book for your first Charles, if you’re so inclined (and you should be!)