Many of the Bitchery have been talking about Any Old Diamonds by K.J. Charles. Well, now we have a great guest review of it by Claudia.
A bit about Claudia:
“At sixteen, I found my older cousin’s stash of Barbara Cartlands and assorted Harlequin-type romance housed in an old sewing cabinet and life was never the same! I love history, so I mostly read historical romance. Favorite authors include Meredith Duran, Mary Balogh, Miranda Neville, Elizabeth Kingston, and Rose Lerner.”
CW/TW for one dub-con/hate sex scene.
When we first meet Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes, he’s agonizing over what to wear.
A lounge suit would presumably be best, for informality, but should he wear a colourful waistcoat, to indicate his divergence from sober respectability, or a plain one to avoid attracting attention?
And just like that, we are off to a world where a “lounge suit” was something one would don to attend a gaslit music hall.
The opening chapter of Any Old Diamonds by K. J. Charles is a masterpiece of “show, not tell” as we see dithering, vain Alec Pyne, as he prefers to be called, unsure of himself and of what he’s about to do, which is to hire two jewel thieves to steal a diamond parure that belongs to his father’s second wife.
Alec is the estranged son of a duke, cobbling together a living as an illustrator. He’s neither fish nor fowl socially, as he put it: A lord without means, a worker bee who can’t mingle with the bohemians in his publishing world due to his noble origins. Above all, Alec is lonely, having reached his late 20s without experiencing a meaningful romantic relationship.
Our other hero is Jerry Crozier, one half of a thieving duo that call themselves the Lilywhite Boys and a former Army man. Jerry is sort of amoral, and for the first third or so of the book he felt more like the villain than one of the heroes.
I’m not a good man, Alec. If I have redeeming features, they are few and far between. You deserve a great deal better than—than you’ve had, but don’t put me on a pedestal because I’m not as shitty as some others.
I will admit that Jerry was harder to like at first. His need for control put me off a bit, and it’s not until past the first half of the book that he starts to show some redeeming qualities and signs he’s also affected by Alec.
Alec wants to stick it to his father and stepmother for years of neglect and nefarious dealings, culminating with the recent death of one of his sisters, which Alec blames on his father’s negligence.
Fans of Charles’ work will likely be delighted by character and place appearances from prior books. I may have whooped for joy when I read the references to the Jack and Knave, the queer bar where a lot of the action in Sins of the Cities series takes place, the Grand Cirque music hall, and the triumphant return of a prior character.
Who, you ask? Susan “Sukie” Lazarus, last seen as a 12 year-old in Justin Lazarus’ retinue in An Unnatural Vice, the second book of the Sins of the Cities trilogy.
Here is Susan giving Alec (and all of us) some advice:
“If Crozier wants to dig up some human decency from under whatever rock he’s buried it, he’ll do it with or without you. And if he doesn’t, nothing you could say or do would change him. Don’t flatter yourself.”
There’s also mentions to the Cirencester family of Ms. Charles’ Regency-set Society of Gentlemen. The series are not strictly interconnected, but the references to past locales, past heroes and a recurring cast work as great worldbuilding; Sins of the Cities takes place 20 years earlier.
The writing is impeccably tight. Any Old Diamonds clocks in at 200-plus pages, vs. the usual 300- to 400-something pages for most HRs, which I personally find are in many cases bloated with needless descriptions and repetitions. Here there’s no slack, no word wasted, not a scene that doesn’t advance the story.
Moreover, the romance tugged at my heart and the erudition spoke to my mind. There are so many subtle references to literature and drama that, upon discovery, added to my understanding and appreciation of the characters.
For example, Alec despairs that Jerry is leading him to the “primrose path” of perdition, and that niggled at me until I gave up and looked it up — sure enough, it’s from Hamlet. Jerry (aptly, of course) quotes a line by Lady Macbeth, and the first phrase of what turned out to be a 17th-century metaphysical poem. In another scene, Alec is reading “The King in Yellow,” a collection of short stories in which a play induces madness in those who read it.
Later, Alec and Jerry go to the theater to watch the London production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” an 1880s play in which, unlike the original Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic novella, Dr. Jekyll is really good and Mr. Hyde is really bad.
Those are rabbit holes that some, I imagine, may not care to go down, and they don’t get in the way of enjoying this fast-paced story, but I was eager and delighted to do so. Each reference allowed me to reflect on the connections between those half-hidden allusions and how the book unfolds and the characters reveal more of themselves.
For example: Alec has many qualms about what he’s about to do. To achieve his goals, he has to deceive his siblings and pretend to grovel at his father and stepmother, and Jerry advises him to imagine he is a character in a melodrama to make it easier on his conscience. Here’s Jerry quoting Lady Macbeth “screw your courage” line after Alec tells him he sounds like Macbeth:
“People repent when they fail,” Crozier said. “‘But screw your courage to the sticking-place and we’ll not fail.
Of course, one wonders whether they will pull off the heist, and at what cost, but also whether Jerry will thaw enough to recognize his love for Alec, and how that love might affect him. He is a man desirous of control, and he and Alec, who longs to relinquish control, are complementary that way.Their sex definitely is of the dom/sub variety, and there’s one dub-con/hate-sex scene that might not sit well with some readers; it worked for me in the larger context.
Things come to a head when the cast of characters arrives at Alec’s family castle, the site of the would-be caper. There’s a huge plot twist that no amount of spoiler tags would make acceptable to divulge, but suffice to say tables turn, things are definitely not what they seemed at first, controlled and controlling roles change hands, all just when I thought I knew exactly where the story was going.
I suspect one’s enjoyment of this book will hinge on whether they like Jerry’s and Alec’s anti-hero vibes, and how readers process the plot twist and way the story unfolds toward the last third of the book. We never get Jerry’s point of view, and I definitely missed it, because when he recognizes he has fallen in love with Alec, it appears to be a bit sudden.
Alec turns out to be a great character, and I underestimated him for more than half of the book. I have to agree with Jerry when he enumerates what he loves about Alec:
Your kindness, your courage, the way you see the world, the way you see me. I want you to be happy. I’d like you to believe I love you, to know it so deeply you won’t doubt it again, and I’d very much like thirty years or so to prove it to you. But it’s your choice, all of it. And in the interests of full disclosure, I do need to stress that the police want me rather urgently.”
And here’s how Alec defines life before and after Jerry:
It’s like I was living in a pencil drawing, and you turned the world to oils. Colourful and rich. And far more complicated and difficult to manage, obviously, but that can’t be helped.
I cannot wait for Templeton Lane, the other half of the Lilywhite Boys, to get his own book. It was pretty clear that Templeton and one of the characters who appears halfway through the book have a history, and might be the main characters in a second Lilywhite Boys book.
For being superbly written, evocative, intellectually stimulating, risky in the way it presents two flawed main characters, and, last but not least, sexy as all heck, this book gets an A minus from me.