The Gentleman Detective
There’s something supremely satisfying about reading a really good historical novel. It’s the ultimate escape; it whisks us away from real-life problems, worries, and all the ugliness, with its visions of past wonders and a different way of life... while at the same time somehow reassuring us that the problems and the meanness of others have always been present, in some form. There’s a connectedness we can’t help but feel when reading an historical novel--which I, for one, very much enjoy.
So, when a bit of mystery and a measure of suspense are added to the mix, I’m beyond happy; it’s a delightful combination, and rarely fails to entertain. One fine example--a very smart series still in its infancy, with only three books thus far--is Charles Finch’s set of Victorian mysteries featuring amateur gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox.
Lenox is 40 years old, a bachelor of means, content to study ancient history (particularly ancient Rome) and write essays on such, to live the life of a London gentleman--complete with memberships in various social and intellectual clubs for men, and enjoying close ties to family and friends... and to study curious circumstances and figure out troublesome mysteries. While the first two things are highly-regarded (and expected) of a man of Lenox’s position, the last is definitely... not. (In 1866, Scotland Yard hasn’t been in existence for quite as long as Lenox has been alive, even, so reactions to it and feelings about it are quite varied. Helping the Yard is hardly an appropriate pastime for a gentleman, no matter how one feels about it, yet that is precisely how Charles Lenox insists on spending much of his time.)
Lenox at least has the support of friends and family, though, and is aided in his endeavors by his old friend Dr. Thomas McConnell (whose medical expertise is invaluable to a sleuth), as well as by his trusty butler, Graham (with whom Lenox shares an interesting relationship, part-employer, part-friend). Also in Lenox’s frequent orbit are his older brother, Edmund, who sits in Parliament--and has ties to all sorts of important people, and his next-door neighbor and old family friend, the widow Lady Jane Grey, who offers a wise and patient sounding board for Lenox’s ruminations.
In the first book, A Beautiful Blue Death, Lenox looks into the shocking suicide of one of Lady Jane’s former servants, who had recently taken a new post. Only a very little investigation is enough for him to realize that the girl’s death is anything but a suicide, which causes Lenox to make a vow to his dear friend that he will uncover the truth. He is promptly (and effectively) hampered in his efforts, though, by both the girl’s current employer at the time of her demise--the wealthy and influential George Barnard, director of the Royal Mint, and by Scotland Yard, which doesn’t want to upset the apple cart, so to speak, when it comes to inconveniencing and annoying such highly-placed government officials.
Of course Lenox will not be deterred. (It would scarcely be much of a mystery story if he were so easily stopped, now, would it?) He follows all the clues he uncovers, from the girl’s questionable past, to Barnard’s several house guests (a mixture of relatives receiving hand-outs and business associates seeking something else), to some secret governmental goings-on. At one point he even thinks he’s nearly solved the mystery, by figuring out the murderer--only to have his prime suspect murdered, before his very eyes.
There are red herrings, partial truths and outright lies, and numerous twists and surprising turns galore, until Lenox finally succeeds in unraveling the whole mess. Throughout, we are subject to a fascinating--and historically accurate, it seems--look at London, c. 1866. Finch’s characters look, talk, and behave appropriately to their stations, as well as to their sex and their relationships with one another. The characters are well-drawn--multi-faceted, sympathetic, and interesting--making for a compelling read (and engendering hopes that the series has many more books to come! :)).
Finch follows ABBD with his second Lenox mystery, The September Society, which picks up just shortly after the events of ABBD. Lenox is promptly “hired” (he doesn’t work for pay, but his jobs have the feel of “work”, nonetheless) by the wealthy widow, Lady Annabelle Payson. It seems her son George has gone missing from Oxford (where he is both a very popular and very successful student). On going to his rooms there to search for him, Lady Payson encountered several troubling signs of something very much amiss... items oddly positioned, a series of strange notes and cards, and her son’s cat Longshanks, dead. (Murdered, actually; the cat has been stabbed--and is still stuck to the middle of the floor--with a letter opener.)
Lenox is right at home in Oxford--the place from whence he matriculated long ago--so his surroundings are both exceedingly familiar as well as a bit surreal to him. (Anyone who has ventured to her/his old stomping grounds after a long absence can identify with Lenox’s reactions.) He searches for anything to help him get a handle on the situation--someone who might have heard or seen something important, friends who may have noticed strange behaviors, etc. With the help, as always, of Dr. McConnell and Graham-the-butler, Lenox is soon up to his ears in curious leads which go nowhere.
George Payson seems, oddly, to have some sort of ties to a very exclusive (not to mention secretive) group of ex-military men, known as the September Society... despite the fact that the group is comprised only of men from a particular militia stationed in the Punjab two decades earlier. One of George’s closest Oxford friends is reported missing, too. Various reports of George arguing with an older adult male come in from a few sources. A teacher who seems closer to the students than to his coworkers is questionable. None of the information ties together... and unfortunately, none of it seems promising for young George. That’s when the situation goes from bad to worse: George’s body is found, brutally killed and scavenged by animals.
Lenox and his little entourage shuttle back and forth between Oxford and London, as they try to stave off feelings of guilt and grief over the young man’s passing by working that much harder to avenge his death. Along the way Lenox receives some surprise help--a Yard inspector he met on a previous case, Inspector Jenkins, allies himself with Lenox, and he (completely out of the blue) finds himself taking on a young friend-of-the-family (a playboy, no less) as an eager protege, as well. It’s a good thing he has the added help, for it takes all of his friends and connections, this time, to figure everything out... which they eventually do, in a most-satisfying manner.
Finch’s mysteries aren’t “cozies”, despite the setting. They’re intelligent and engrossing, full of fascinating period detail, clever plot twists, and smart dialogue. If you like your historical mysteries to have intricate plotting and to make you think, Finch’s Lenox series should do nicely. :) GlamKitty rating: 4 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)