I recently read A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch, his debut novel introducing Charles Lenox, an amateur detective, Victorian gentleman, and armchair explorer. The novel was described as “equal parts Sherlock Holmes…and P.G. Wodehouse” (flyleaf, St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2007). The plot revolved around the murder of a housemaid from an exotic, expensive poison. Based on this, the novel held great promise for me, but failed to deliver. Although Finch provided interesting historical details about early 19C London and lovingly described Victorian society, lavish balls, and multi-course dinners, the plot that was to hold it all together was thin and the resolution of the murder felt contrived and unconvincing. Much of the investigation and uncovering of clues comes in the form of a secondary character reporting his findings to Lenox so we do not see the action. When Lenox is on the case himself, most of his work entails accusing various suspects of the murder and questioning them. Although I am quite satisfied to read a mystery that is not all action packed but rather slowly unfolds based on various conversations as a means of uncovering the culprit, I want those talks to reveal a tense, psychological cat and mouse game. I also want the story to be to be tightly plotted with a “never saw it coming” ending to the investigation. None of this is evident in Blue Death. Although the mystery felt flat to me, I very much enjoyed the character of Charles Lenox with all his idiosyncrasies, and the constellation of friends and helpers. Finch has gone on to write several more adventures of Charles Lenox and is recognized as a successful historical mystery writer. Perhaps this was just not his best novel.
Tag Archives: british mystery
P. D. James is the undisputed mistress of murder. She set the bar for the detective murder mystery genre, so why did I have such a hard time getting involved in the novel “A Mind to Murder”? It is a mystery featuring her enigmatic detective Adam Dalgliesh and is set in an exclusive psychological treatment hospital. Promising indeed. The victim is discovered early in the story–a much disliked administrative official–stabbed with a chisel in the basement records room. From there, the story sags as the detective interviews all the doctors and staff on the minute details of their movements prior to the murder. I admire James’ attention to detail, but as a reader this was a bit tedious because the same information was repeated and it was extremely difficult for me to keep track of a dozen new characters who were introduced all at once with little to distinguish them from each other. The mystery picked up when we are given a glimpse into the more private lives of these characters from a different POV, usually their own. The ending was satisfying with a little last minute twist at the end. As always, James is masterful in creating realistic people and describing them with just the right touches of detail. Dalgliesh is an intriguing detective and well-rounded creation full of his own insecurities and unexpected talents, like poetry writing. Once I became engaged with the characters I enjoyed the book and you can’t beat James for layered plots and unexpected turns.
I read a review of Deborah Crombie’s “No Mark Upon Her,” and immediately ordered it for my daughter, and then read it myself. The mystery centers around the murder of an Olympic caliber rower, who is found dead on the Thames after going out one evening in her single scull. My daughter is a college rower and the “crew culture” is an interesting phenomenon; I was wondering how Crombie would capture it in her work. The verdict–she did an excellent job not only illustrating the cultish devotion of rowers to the sport and their clubs, in this case the prestigious Leander Club, but also made the world of the small villages where the story is set come alive. According to the author’s bio, she is a native Texan, who has lived in both England and Scotland…and that surprised me. The story, set in the area of Henley-on-Thames, seems to be an area with which she is comfortable and very familiar. Her characters are real and fully formed–none are just place holders necessary to advance the plot. I especially liked the character Kieran Connolly, an Iraqi war vet with PTSD, who was trying to put his life back together by refurbishing boats and working with his dog, Finn, on a search and rescue team. The plot is involved and keeps even the most astute mystery reader guessing to the end. If you like British mysteries, quirky characters, and a setting which makes you want to visit there, Crombie’s work is for you. My one, tiny criticism is one I have mentioned before: since she has introduced her main characters in previous works and developed a whole back story for them, I was a bit lost and bogged down at the very beginning, because I was unfamiliar with them. If you feel the same, just keep going, it’s worth it…or, as they say on my daughter’s crew team: “Keep calm and row on!”