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The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by KJ Charles
I… Oh my gosh, I don’t really know what to say about this. I really liked it. Let me say that first. It’s an entertaining, fantastic book that’s well worth purchasing and reading and loving. But I think for about the first half of the book, I was just absolutely giddy with how great it was. And then, for the second half I was… decidedly un‐giddy. Never bored, never a moment where I disliked the book, or even when I didn’t enjoy it. I just…
Let’s start at the beginning. I’ve read the author, KJ Charles’, work before‐ namely her Magpie/Jackdaw series‐ and I really enjoy her writing and her characters and the way she makes magic and ghosts and whatnot seem not only exciting and interesting but believable. So as I read that series, I was also doing a kind of mad scramble to get my hands on anything else she had written and I came across her short story ‘Butterflies,’ which is where I first met Simon Feximal and Robert Caldwell, the main characters of ‘The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal.’ And I loved them and the story, so when I saw that KJ Charles had written a whole book about them, I was really excited. And I’m so glad that more of these characters’ story was written.
There’s so much I like about this book. I love, as I mentioned, the magic and ghosts and how everything is simple and makes so much sense. I love how this is written as a series of short stories, kind of, that connect to show the growing relationship, and then life, that Robert and Simon build together. The book has a kind of Sherlock Holmes feel (I say with little authority, having read very little Sherlock) in that each story within the book is a case or problem that Simon and Robert encounter and solve. It kept things so fresh and exciting. And I also liked that, even though this is definitely a romance, it’s not constrained by a typical romance, uh, timeframe? You know‐ characters meet, fall in lust, fall in love, have sex about half way through the book, have some kind of falling out, get back together. This book, instead, shows the beginning of their relationship and their coming together, but then goes beyond that and shows them leading a life together, as partners in business and in love. And that was so refreshing and fantastic.
I also have to say, I really enjoyed how much freedom KJ Charles afforded her characters. What I mean is, Simon and Robert are living in a time period where being gay and having sex with another man was literally against the law. And it’s definitely discussed, how this is dangerous for them, how their relationship and love can be used against them. But at the same time, KJ Charles’ makes as safe and comfortable a space for them as possible. She makes it so they can live together and be together with as few problems as possible. I don’t know if she does this on purpose or not, but I also noticed it in her Magpie series‐ space given, and not a lot of ‘We can’t be seen together, we must pretend not to know each other in public, what we’re doing is illegal/immoral/whatever, etc.’ All this hemming and hawing‐ it doesn’t happen here. Not that the concern isn’t valid, especially in this time period. But it’s also really tiresome to read about, especially when both parties know they’re gay, know they’re attracted to each other, and when we, as readers, know there’s actually nothing wrong or shameful about being gay. To be able to face the challenges head on, as a couple, being careful but also embracing their relationship, is just so much more enjoyable to read.
It’s not that the issue is ignored in KJ Charles’ books, not at all, it’s just that she lets her characters be together and comfortable in their togetherness and friendships, as much as possible. She also makes a safe place for her women characters, and she creates, as much as she can, an equality‐ for those characters who are gay, for those who are women, for those who fall into non‐binary gender lines, for those who are wealthy or poor. Everybody, in those close circles of friendship, is just treated as equally as possible. And I really appreciated that. It was so comfortable to read. It made it so enjoyable, to find a safe space with these characters and their friends, where they didn’t have to be as afraid, or feel less‐than, because of their gender or sexuality or status.
Anyway. That’s a bit off point, I guess. What I mean is, this was just very enjoyable, in many ways.
However. At about, I don’t know, half way through, or maybe closer to two‐thirds of the way through the book, I kind of started to wonder where this was all going. I don’t mean to say that I was getting bored, because I wasn’t‐ I was definitely still deeply involved with Simon and Robert and their cases. But their overarching story had kind of… slowed. And, where in the first few stories, I felt I’d really gotten to know Robert as an interesting and complex character, as the book went on, I felt I knew him less and less. He became a bit less three‐dimensional, with the most important thing about him being how much he loved Simon. Which is… great, but not… It doesn’t make Robert as interesting as I’d have wanted.
I also knew, from an article I’d read, that the book was supposed to span twenty years, which would have put Simon in his mid‐fifties by the end, and Robert in his late forties. But for most of the book, I’m pretty sure Robert hasn’t left his twenties. Which is fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I couldn’t help wondering why so much of their lives, or what Robert wants to write about, happened so early in that time, and so little was written about them living together as older men. Or, why the book stretched so far into the future if most of the plot took place much earlier in their lives.
I guess, and this is probably my failing as a reader, more than a problem with the book, that I wanted, along with the ghost cases and the magic and the strain and struggle of all that, time spent on Robert and Simon together, as a couple. I didn’t need anything mushy or overly romantic. I just… wanted more of them. Here was an opportunity to describe a couple who’s been together for all these years, to look into the ways their love has changed and grown, and it didn’t really happen. It all, actually, by the end, felt a bit rushed.
Still, I liked the book, very much, all the way through. Although, I will say that I was kind of… confused by the last two stories. The second to last seemed to have very little point. Was it used to introduce the character of Jo? Perhaps… but it would have been more effective to introduce Jo earlier in the book and make them a real character, instead of somebody thrown in at the end. That story itself didn’t really seem to go anywhere, and I just wasn’t sure why it was there at all. The last story deals with the end of the whole book, so I won’t say much about it. But I found it… Look, KJ Charles is an excellent writer, and she never has to work very hard to wring emotion out of me, as a reader, because her writing is filled with emotion. But the ending of this book felt a bit gratuitous, like she wanted to use it to squeeze the readers’ hearts a little bit more. And that kind of backfired, for me, because I don’t like an author pointing me in the direction of what I should feel.
I think that at the end, it seemed that maybe KJ Charles just wasn’t sure how to write about Simon and Robert’s lives after they’d gotten together, and was even less sure how to write an ending that meant something but also, you know, ended things.
So overall, I guess I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I loved it and I’d read it again in a second, and I think that, without question, KJ Charles is one of the most talented writers in the m/m genre today. But on the other hand, it never ended up touching my heart as much as I wanted. I liked Simon and Robert, but I never really loved them. And I really, really wanted to.
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