on June 26th 2007
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Also in this series: An Old Betrayal, The Laws of Murder, The September Society, The Fleet Street Murders, Home By Nightfall, The Inheritance, The Woman in the Water, Gone Before Christmas, The Vanishing Man, The Last Passenger, An Extravagant Death
On any given day in London, all Charles Lenox, Victorian gentleman and armchair explorer, wants to do is relax in his private study with a cup of tea, a roaring fire and a good book. But when his lifelong friend Lady Jane asks for his help, Lenox cannot resist another chance to unravel a mystery, even if it means trudging through the snow to her townhouse next door.
One of Jane’s former servants, Prudence Smith, is dead – an apparent suicide. But Lenox suspects something far more sinister: murder, by a rare and deadly poison. The house where the girl worked is full of suspects, and though Prudence dabbled with the hearts of more than a few men, Lenox is baffled by an elusive lack of motive in the girl’s death. When another body turns up during the London season’s most fashionable ball, Lenox must untangle a web of loyalties and animosities. Was it jealousy that killed Prudence? Or was it something else entirely, something that Lenox alone can uncover before the killer strikes again – disturbingly close to home?
When we first meet Charles Lenox, he is already established as a detective. A gentleman of independent means, Lenox takes no payment for his efforts, and sometimes finds himself at odds with Scotland Yard. A Beautiful Blue Death, the first mystery in the series, opens when Lenox’s dear friend and neighbor, Lady Jane, asks him to look into the apparent suicide of her former parlormaid. His investigation leads to hints of a much larger crime which could threaten the stability of the nation.
The mystery is well-written, with good pacing, an intelligent plot, and just the right blend of clues and red herrings. Charles Finch writes with a quite sensitivity and a reserve that reflects both Lenox’s character and the formality of upper- and upper-middle-class Victorian society. Neither Lenox nor the text itself are without emotion, but it is understated, as indeed a gentleman’s feelings would have been in that era.
Lenox is an excellent detective, both observant and imaginative, but his vocation is not entirely accepted by either society or the police. He is much less flamboyant in personality than two of the other fictional gentlemen detectives with whom he might be compared: Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion. Instead, he is more akin to Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn. Campion and Wimsey tend to hide their intelligence behind a joking, somewhat foolish facade that often makes others underestimate them. Alleyn and Lenox are quietly brilliant, neither self-effacing nor drawing attention to themselves. They also share both a compassion for those involved in a case and an ability to remain somewhat dispassionately observant and analytical, a combination that serves each well in their work. And neither – in fact, none of the four I mentioned – allows class or social position of victim or perpetrator to influence their pursuit of justice.
The supporting characters are well-drawn, particularly Lenox’s closest friends, Lady Jane and Thomas McConnell, a doctor married to Lady Jane’s friend Toto. McConnell is a useful ally, of course, with his medical knowledge – especially since Lenox can’t always rely on getting information from the police or coronor. I also enjoyed Charles’s older brother Edward, an MP; the brothers have an affectionate, supportive relationship. More surprising is the mutual respect and friendship shared by Lenox and his manservant Graham. Though Graham never allows himself to become over-familiar, it’s clear that Lenox confides in and relies on Graham in his work and does, in fact, consider him a friend despite the disparity in their station and their official relationship as employer and servant. Like McConnell, Graham serves as a useful confederate, particularly in gathering information from household staff.
I actually started reading the Lenox mysteries with the two most recent books, both of which I loved enough that I decided to read the whole series in order. Book one is just as good as the later books, and that is saying something. (You can see my other reviews by clicking the “other books in this series” links at the top of this post.) If you enjoy British mystery, a tightly plotted and well-written puzzle, and a detective with a strong sense of justice and compassion, you really ought to give the Lenox series a try.
Challenges: COYER eligiblity: $2.99; Cruisin’ Thru the Cozies; PopSugar: a mystery or thriller; Top of the Hoard; 2015 TBR Pile Reading Challenge
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- COYER Winter 2014-2015
- Cruisin' Thru the Cozies 2015
- PopSugar 2015 Reading challenge
- TBR Pile Reading Challenge 2015
- Top of the Hoard 2015