I read the first Charles Lenox mystery, A Beautiful Blue Death, in 2007. Browsing through the new library books, I plucked it from the shelf, read it too quickly, and enjoyed it immensely. Charles Finch, the author, has now written thirteen books in the series, and I have bought and read them all. Their protagonist is a Victorian gentleman named Charles Lenox, who—in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes—longs to be a detective. During the series, he establishes himself in that occupation—an unusual decision for a gentleman of that time—and he becomes well known throughout London in the fictional world of the 19th century.
Twice, I’ve had a brief connection to the author. I interviewed him for a mystery-writing group newsletter sponsored by Sisters in Crime. Often humorous in his answers, he impressed me with his humility toward his success. Then I heard him speak in Arizona when I was spending the winter there. It was an enjoyable evening listening to his anecdotes about humorous writing and public speaking experiences.
While Finch has lived in various places like France, England, and New York, he now lives in the Midwest. His newest book, The Woman in the Water, is a prequel to his Lenox series.
I’ve noticed an occasional comment/review by a reader who finds Finch’s newest book a bit slow. That reader is undoubtedly a “modern” mystery reader. Finch’s books are filled with graceful language and a depth of character development that takes your breath away. This goes against the more recent style of mysteries where a dead body must turn up in the first ten pages. In fact, a murder on the first page would be preferable.
I’m thankful to Mr. Finch for reminding us that a beautifully written mystery with characters we grow to love is enthralling.
In The Woman in the Water, we meet a very young Charles Lenox, so unsure of himself that he is silent around the Scotland Yard detectives and has a business card with only his name and address. To add “detective” or “investigator” would be presumptuous in his 23-year-old mind. A bit inept, not sure what to do with his life, he watches the woman he loves marry someone else.
His faithful valet, Graham, accompanies him on his investigation of a serial killer who brags about committing “the perfect crime” in letters to a London newspaper. Scotland Yard does not take the young Lenox’s ideas seriously, and the vulgar and brutish detectives make fun of the dilettante playing at being an investigator. But Charles Lenox will show them. Using his powers of deduction and research, he goes after the killer.
I’ve always loved the fully-developed characters in Finch’s mysteries. To grow up in the Lenox family is to live a comfortable, secure, and loving existence, an early life that eventually gives Charles Lenox the ability to eschew the class system and take up his work as a detective. Finch shows us the loving relationships in the family and allows us to understand why Charles Lenox is a man of principle and values. He learned those codes among the family members we join in the drawing rooms and on horseback in the English countryside.
I am equally enthralled by the way Finch incorporates bits of history and pieces of social class behavior and attitudes in Victorian England. We travel to the countryside and visit the Lenox estate, a property Charles will never inherit because he is the second son. We see the close relationship between Lenox and his valet, Graham, a man as intelligent as any Oxford man, but one who had the misfortune of a lower class birth . Their Victorian attitudes are conveyed in something as simple as a spoken word, a reaction, tone of voice, or raised eyebrow that reveals class differences.
People who have read the earlier Lenox mysteries before this prequel will find future characters hidden among the pages. I had to stop short many times and remind myself that “This is the woman he loves in later books,” or “that is Lord Darlington at age five. We know what a rake he’ll become in later years.” We even read the bit of foreshadowing when Charles Lenox hears that a house is for sale next door to the home of a friend, Lady Jane.
Reading The Woman in the Water reminded me of my delight when I watched the PBS series, “Endeavour,” the prequel to the series starring John Thaw as Inspector Morse. In “Endeavour,” we see the young Morse, unsure of himself, working on his moral code, and finding the hobbies he later will enjoy as an adult: his sports car, his crossword puzzles, anagrams, and music. At the end of the first season when the young Endeavour looks in the rear view mirror of the car he occupies, he sees the face of John Thaw, the grown detective. What a wonderful homage to the late John Thaw, and what a sensitive way to show the man Endeavour would become. This new prequel to the Lenox series reminded me of that same delicate understanding. It is a delight.