Finch, Charles. A Beautiful Blue Death.

NY: St. Martin, 2007.

Mystery novels in a historical setting are very problematic, I’ve found, but my wife recommended this new series so I gave it a try. And it’s not bad. It does have problems, but most of them are common to nearly any first novel. It’s 1865 in London and Charles Lenox, the 30-ish younger brother of a baronet, is one of the unmarried idle rich. Well, not so idle, actually: He’s a talented amateur detective (and armchair explorer who wishes he could find the time to actually travel) who frequently shows up the plods at Scotland Yard,

especially the rather horribly clichéd Inspector Exeter, who likes to swagger around town in full uniform and makes more use of his truncheon than he should. Lenox’s next-door neighbor is Lady Jane Grey (yeah, I know, that name), with whom he has a lifelong close-but-not-romantic relationship — though he sometimes seems a little unsure of that limitation, and the whole thing is rather cloying. And his manservant, Graham, is not only his “Bunter” but also a talented investigator himself.

The plot involves a young upstairs maid who used to work for Lady Jane, but who moved to the even more wealthy household of George Barnard, where her fiancé was a footman, and who has now been found murdered in her bed. The poison, as Lenox discovers in short order — with the assistance of his friend, the slightly alcoholic Dr. McConnell, a wealthy amateur chemist — was rare, very difficult to obtain, and very expensive, which lets out the below-stairs contingent as suspects. Then he discovers, through his brother (a quiet but high-placed advisor to the government; think Mycroft, sort of), that Barnard, presently Master of the Mint, was hiding several million pounds in official gold in his house. Is there more widespread criminal activity here than he originally thought?

The plot is worked out in a reasonable fashion, though it sometimes becomes a bit too complicated and I had to re-read Lenox’s explanations more than once. Lenox himself is in many ways a 21st-century personality in a frock coat — a common error of novice historical novelists. And Finch sometimes goes to considerable lengths to show off what he’s learned about Victorian social history — the sort of thing Anne Perry does much more subtly, and therefore more successfully.

Also, the author frequently has Lenox think back casually to past cases — “the Marlborough forgery,” and so on — in an annoyingly Holmesian fashion, and with no indication of their possible relevance. And there’s a good deal of far-future foreshadowing, as when Lenox comments to McConnell on the development of CSI-style forensics: “One day even a single speck of something will tell us everything about it.” There are also numerous small errors that (speaking from my own editorial experience) a copyeditor really ought to have caught, like Lenox referring to a bottle of “dark scotch” that McConnell brought back with him from a visit to Edinburgh. (Only Americans refer to whisky from Scotland as “scotch.”) I’m also not convinced that anyone in 1865 would have referred to a beggar as a “panhandler,” a term whose common usage seems to date from several decades later.

There are several volumes out now in this series and I shall make a point of looking at the next one, but one hopes the author will have learned his lessons in the meantime.

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