Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Death in the Spires by K. J. Charles: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Death in the Spires by KJ Charles

Death in the Spires is excellent historical fiction and an enjoyable murder mystery. It takes place in the early 1890s Oxford and London in 1905, and follows Jeremy Kite, a government clerk who loses his job when an anonymous letter accuses him of a murder that took place in Oxford ten years earlier. Incensed, he decides to investigate once and for all.

Jem is a son of a factory worker, who with the help of a scholarship manages to get to Oxford to study mathematics, an achievement that was out of grasp of most working class people at the time. He’s short, clubfooted and doesn’t know the rules and manners of the place that is mostly populated by upper class white men who do not tolerate difference. He doesn’t have great expectations for his time there, but on his first day, he meets Toby Feynsham, a grandson of a marquis who takes him and other unusual people—for the era—under his wing, like a black man studying to become a doctor, two women (one of whom is Toby’s sister) and an (almost) openly gay man.

Against all odds, Jem has magical time in Oxford with his group of friends. He excels in his studies and even participates in activities like the rowing team. And then, three years later, right before the finals, Toby is murdered. It happens after a huge row between the group, and in a manner that the friends know that only one of them could’ve done it. But they keep their mouths shut and the murder goes unsolved. It breaks the group and they never meet again.

Jem’s life is destroyed by it. He has a breakdown and can’t graduate. He works for pittance at jobs he hates, and every now and then gets fired when rumours about the murder surface. So he starts to investigate, even though everyone he contacts tells him to leave be. To his surprise and sorrow, while the rest of the group seem successful, the murder has ruined their lives too, one way or another. And no one wants to talk.

Jem returns to Oxford, reluctantly, and connects with his old love, which somehow makes things worse, as Nick is among the suspects too. Little by little, he forms a picture of what took place. It turns out, Toby wasn’t the wonderful person he believed and may even have brought the death on himself, and all his friends had secrets that could’ve made them the killer. But no matter the reasons, Jem knows only truth will release their group from the limbo their lives have become. Not everyone agrees, and Jem’s life is suddenly in danger.

This was a wonderful, melancholy story of friendship, lost loves and missed chances. Like in Brideshead Revisited, the reader gets a vivid glimpse into a lost world of aristocratic academia, and the contrast with Jem’s dreary later life is great. Jem with his health issues is a lovely, dignified character who carries the story perfectly. His friends, flawed and all, are people who matter to him greatly. The reader doesn’t really want anyone to be the killer, to see them hang, and neither does Jem.

Luckily, this is a story where truth and justice aren’t the same thing. We get both. The ending is absolutely satisfying, and it leaves the reader with a hope that from now on, Jem’s life will improve and everyone will live happily ever after—whatever that may mean for them.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

1 comment:

  1. A fantastic find, I like this era for a book setting.