The Gentleman’s Book of Vices by Jess Everlee
Published November 29, 2022 by Carina Press
Review by Kate H.
This debut novel by Jess Everlee is about a young man who has trapped himself into marriage by living a profligate but not degenerate life. He needs to pay off his debt, and his father has arranged this if he marries Alma, a sweet young woman. Charlie is an amiable guy, loyal, and though there may not be anything super-remarkable about him, I really grew to like him within a few chapters. One of his pastimes, one he will have to conceal from his future wife, is collecting “pornographic” writings, art, and figurines. The novel is set in the late 19th century, and Charlie is a gay man, though the word “gay” did not come into use that way for several decades.
At the beginning of the novel, Charlie’s friend Miss Jo meets him at his favorite molly house, the Curious Fox. A fascinating character on her own, Jo is married to “the Beast” but hangs with the Sophists and seems to be able to move in out of various societies with ease. She has somehow procured the real name and address of his favorite pornographic writer Reginald Fox. No one knows who Fox is, and so Charlie is rightfully suspicious of where Jo got the information, but he barrels ahead in his efforts to secure the signature of Fox, aka Miles Montague, the gruff proprietor of a bookstore on Fleet Street. Sunshine/grumpy here we go!
Jess Everlee does a good job of situating us in the precariousness that was being LGBTQ in the 19th century. For one, despite his precautions to remain anonymous, every story that the celebrated Reginald Fox writes must end in tragedy. A real romance, with an HEA would set up any writer of gay or lesbian love for harsher prosecution, because they would be failing to show the characters getting their “comeuppance” and restoring the homophobic world order. Reginald Fox needs plausible deniability. We also learn the lengths to which the molly house proprietor goes to secure the space of The Curious Fox from onlookers and police. Finally, Miles himself lives in a state of constant low-level paranoia because his ex-lover, Ethan, died in prison one year into a prison term for a reduced sodomy charge. He knows the risks of blackmail and exposure. Ethan had willed Miles the bookstore, and though Miles is a terrible shop owner, it has hung around his neck like a millstone for years.
I was white knuckling my Kindle as I read this book because the tension feels real. Sometimes m/m historical fiction can blunt the disturbing homophobia of 18th or 19th century England by using wealth, or secret societies, or ninja-like defenses to protect the main characters. In The Gentleman’s Book of Vices, Charlie is not rich enough or aristocratic enough to be protected from anti-sodomy laws, and so it is into protected spaces he and Miles must go. One of those spaces is Miles’ apartment above the bookstore. “Small and drafty,” this is the place where Miles writes, surrounded by candles and lamps. Once the door is closed, the two of them are freer. And the scenes in that apartment, fierce and tender, are all the more erotic because the two men can be themselves.
My main criticism of this novel is in the pacing. There was a lot to get through in the novel, and the falling in love section was wonderful. Then, and without giving anything away, Charlie must deal with his impending marriage and what it means for him and Miles, which is a surprising and tear-worthy section. But the conclusion felt like a bullet-train combined with an Agatha Christie conclusion, and I was a bit disappointed it had to end like that.