You probably know by now that I love KJ Charles’s writing, and this spooky, steamy collection of stories is no exception. I was reminded of it recently, so here’s a review!
Book: The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by KJ Charles
Publication date: 25th March 2017
Ownership: Paperback was a gift from family several years ago.
Content warnings: (Author provided) Occult horrors and death throughout.
A story too secret, too terrifying—and too shockingly intimate—for Victorian eyes.
A note to the Editor
I have been Simon Feximal’s companion, assistant and chronicler for twenty years now, and during that time my Casebooks of Feximal the Ghost-Hunter have spread the reputation of this most accomplished of ghost-hunters far and wide.
You have asked me often for the tale of our first meeting, and how my association with Feximal came about. I have always declined, because it is a story too private to be truthfully recounted, and a memory too precious to be falsified. But none knows better than I that stories must be told.
So here is it, Henry, a full and accurate account of how I met Simon Feximal, which I shall leave with my solicitor to pass to you after my death.
I dare say it may not be quite what you expect.
Robert Caldwell has served as the companion to the ghost-hunter and paranormal investigator Simon Feximal for twenty years, publishing fictionalised versions of his cases to wild acclaim. Now, with the dangers of the First World War looming, he feels it is finally time to reveal the truth behind his relationship with Feximal, in a no-holds-barred memoir to be published only after his death. This is not exactly a novel, but a collection of shorter stories, presented as different cases Feximal and Caldwell investigate, that build into a full arc; you could dip into them as standalone short stories if you really wanted, but for the true emotional payoff I recommend reading from beginning to end.
It does, as you might expect from the set up, owe something to Sherlock Holmes, but though we have a genius, oddball detective and his more practical assistant-cum-chronicler as our leads, the story swiftly becomes its own. One of the strengths in all of Charles’s work is the wonderful knack she has for writing characters who may seem prickly and unapproachable, but who compel you to peel back their layers and find out what makes them the way they are. Feximal and Caldwell are no exception to this – I found both of them fascinating characters, full of depth, and I loved how they developed both individually and as a couple.
The stories walk the line between horror, fantasy, and romance in a way that feels pretty unique in my reading experience. I’m not generally someone who enjoys horror, but this worked well for me, I think because the genuinely creepy elements are mixed with a wonderful thread of dark humour and that classic mystery feel. The paranormal scenes are incredibly tense, but not particularly gory or graphic, so horror wusses like me should just about be okay – but maybe keep the lights on… There’s a great list of content warnings on the author’s site if you want to check them out before you read.
As you would expect if you’ve read any of KJ Charles’s work previously, this book is steamy, pretty much from the get-go. The first time Caldwell meets Feximal, they’re seized in the grip of a ghost whose unfinished business is, well, getting down to business, which leads to a somewhat unorthodox method of exorcism. It might sound like the set up for mindless erotica, but there’s much more to it than that – there’s a real focus on consent and communication that keeps it firmly in a darkly romantic vein, and the character work is so exquisite that every sex scene serves a purpose in both the plot and the development of the leads’ relationship. It’s definitely an adult read, but as much because of the darkness and depth of the characters’ world views as because of the sexual content.
I’m a big fan of Charles, but something I love about this book in particular is the world building and the way it is shown. We only get glimpses of the world as they come up in the context of each case, but this is a very clever historical fantasy. Sometimes with urban fantasy, modern or historical, the changes made to the world are only superficial, but here there’s a genuine feel that the differences run through society all the way to the core. The real world Victorian obsession with the occult definitely helps with the feel of this, but there are numerous small touches throughout that really make the world come alive – and I really thought that Caldwell’s narration, writing in hindsight in 1914 about cases from the turn of the century, added wonderfully to this. There’s a sense of irony and pathos to stories told after the fact that just adds more texture to the world.
I could read dozens more books in this series if they existed. If you love this and are looking for more, Spectred Isle takes place in the same world with tangentially related characters, but I also recommend Charles’s Regency fantasy series, which begins with The Magpie Lord. All in all, this is a must-read if you like your fantasy dark, historical, sexy and spooky.