I stumbled upon Charles Finch’s “Charles Lenox” detective series when I saw his latest book A Death in the Small Hours on display. Vaunted as a cure for ailing Downton Abbey addicts, I made note of Finch’s series and recently read the first book A Beautiful Blue Death. Given the book’s pedigree as a critically acclaimed work and an Agatha Award nominee, I thought it a fitting first mystery to review on the Modern Manuscript.
Set in Victorian England, A Beautiful Blue Death captures a bit of the upstairs, downstairs charm which makes Downton Abbey so compelling even if it is set chronologically before the first serial of the popular television show. A Beautiful Blue Death introduces the aristocratic amateur sleuth, hobby intellectual, and armchair traveler Charles Lenox. In contrast with perhaps the other most famous fictional Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes, Lenox is a quiet, un-eccentric fellow of middling age who enjoys the comforts of home and who frequents the fringes of polite society. A loyal butler, life-long friend and neighbor Lady Jane, and a retired doctor and medical researcher complete the primary cast. Finch’s characters come across as agreeable if only lightly sketched in A Beautiful Blue Death, leaving room for further development in the other five books of his series and counting. I look forward to seeing how their stories unfold as the series progresses.
The meat and bones of the book come in the plotting of the mystery. One of Lady Jane’s former servants is found dead by apparent suicide and it is up to Lenox to plead the case for murder and ultimately catch the killer. Finch achieves the fine balance between creating a heavily detailed puzzle for readers to solve without becoming so complex that the reader could not possibly guess the outcome–an impressive feat considering that this is Finch’s first mystery novel.
Finch writes with lean, Spartan prose, carefully chosen descriptions, and terse sentences. While somewhat jarring at first given the general bias in fiction writing towards more lengthy, verbose phrases, Finch’s writing style grows on the reader after the first few chapters and ultimately complements his characters and plotting.
The author’s effective use of historical detailing throughout the book significantly adds to its overall quality. Finch uses great smaller historical elements to build the world of his book without allowing the history of Victorian England to overwhelm his story. While Finch makes a few gaffs in some of the English slang and the occasional detail, they are only disconcerting to a highly practiced eye.
A Beautiful Blue Death fits solidly in the cozy mystery category and would likely be unappealing to readers who favor gritty, hard-boiled detective stories or those who enjoy action-packed mysteries. Points of Finch’s book flirt dangerously with cliche, but I think casual enthusiasts of detail-oriented historical mysteries will find A Beautiful Blue Death to be a relaxing, light read.
I look forward to reading the second book in the series.