by Charles Finch
Finch’s first novel tells the tale of Charles Lenox, the second son of a wealthy family who amuses himself by putting his considerable talents of observation and ratiocination to use solving crimes in Victorian England. A Beautiful Blue Death refers to a maid whose murder is staged as a suicide. As Lenox and his trusty manservant pursues the case at the behest of his neighbor, the lovely Lady Jane, he discovers overlapping layers of lies, love, and political intrigue. A few thoughts:
- The best part of this book is its intricately crafted mystery. The levels of the story peel away slowly, but they make sense and they’re unpredictable enough that the story provides a solid payoff.
- Finch also does a great job with the environs of Victorian London itself. Lenox’s clubs, the pharmacies, Lady Jane’s house, and the various other settings come alive through his vivid descriptions.
- At the same time, Lenox is a pretty flat character who shows flexibility with his suspects but about whom we don’t sense much under the surface. His relationship with Graham (the manservant) emerges nicely, but feels too much like other detective duos for my taste. My biggest complaint is how much time Lenox spends explaining his reasoning — there’s just too much exposition.
- Finch’s biggest challenge is introducing another detective to this already crowded arena. Admittedly, Campion is about twenty years later, but both Holmes and Barker provide better stories, to my money. Genre fiction has to walk a line between meeting expectations and introducing something new. Alas, in this book, it felt too much like Finch used a checklist built on the Holmes stories to establish the necessary elements for the amateur detective to function.
- The side characters, usually introduced for a specific purpose, emerge as charming caricatures. I particularly liked the old pharmacist and his wife, James the bereaved footman, and the bootmaker.
Not a bad book, overall, but not great either.