As always with Finch’s Victorian mysteries, this is an engaging and entertaining read, with the charming, urbane detective Charles Lenox, now middle-aged and married to Lady Jane and with two children, and with a narrator who delivers wry observations that make me chuckle inwardly as I read.
The book begins in London 1878 (a period I know and love). In the aftermath of a fictionalized version of the (true) corruption scandal that shook up Scotland Yard, Lenox’s potential presence at the trial is awkward, and PM Disraeli sends him off to America on a diplomatic mission. However, once in America, Lenox is waylaid by a case of murder, which takes him to Newport, where a young woman’s corpse has been found on the beach below the famous Cliff Walk. For those who are watching Julian Fellowes’s THE GILDED AGE, you will find some of the characters here, most notably Mrs. Astor who throws the ball that occurs toward the end of this book.
One thing I love about the book is that Finch knows the period so well that the details that immerse us in this other world are feathered in organically, and I always learn something new. For example, the word “backlog” comes from the “back log” in a fireplace. Shrapnel—gunshot loaded inside hollow cannonballs—was created in 1784 by a lieutenant named Henry Shrapnel. There was a tavern in Greenwich Village where officers used to meet during the Civil War, with spies, “called the Old Grapevine” (hence the phrase, heard it through the grapevine). I always enjoy those tidbits, like a raisin in a scone.
I also love the nimble, allusive language that captures nuances and small moments. Quoted passages are never as good out of context – but here are a few, just to give those readers unacquainted with Finch a sense for his prose. As the third one suggests, Finch has some of Austen’s tendency toward humorous understatement and shrewd observation of character.
“For the next two days London was layered in a fog so dense that according to the papers now fewer than eight men fell into the river from the West India Docks. All of them had been fished out quickly, fortunately, and none worse off than a glass of rum would cure, but as the papers said—still! A pretty pass things had come to, when men and women couldn’t walk the streets of the capital without the prospect of barging straight into a lamppost.”
Regarding Delmonico’s in NYC: “Lenox might have queried the wisdom of police commissioners meeting in the same place as the criminals—but it fit in with New York, where everything seemed to happen inches from everything else.”
“Most single young gentlemen of large fortune he had known were drunk with their own high valuation of themselves, knowing it was held by others too; few Mr. Bingleys to be found anywhere, at any time.”
“… the article’s writer … was identified as J. Gossip Gadabout, a name which Lenox, with his years of practice in detection, strongly suspected of being a pseudonym.”
If you haven’t read the previous novels in the series, you can begin here; it works as a standalone.
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