Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Great Summer Reads: Charles Finch

Since I've given up on the Midnight shift for a while, I've been enjoying some light summer reading.  I was a little behind on my favorite writers.  I've been chewing throught paperbacks over the last couple weeks.  Well, that's not exactly accurate since I started reading on the Nook.  What would the term be nowadays?  You can't really chew through an e-book . . . maybe I'm surfing through fiction?  I don't know.

I know I've mentioned Charles Finch before.  He's a very talented writer.  For those of you like me, that enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories, he's got a lot to offer.  It's the same Victorian era in London, his characters are well conceived, and he really weaves a fantastic story.  I just finished his last book A Stranger in Mayfair.  I was a little concerned at the end of the third book when his detective, Charles Lennox, was elected to Parliment and got married.  I thought maybe he'd jumped the shark, but it all worked very well in the last one.  I also noticed he has a fifth book scheduled for release in November 2011 A Burial at Sea so there's something to look forward to around Thanksgiving. 


Set in England in 1865, Finch's impressive debut A Beautiful Blue Death introduces an appealing gentleman sleuth, Charles Lenox. When Lady Jane Grey's former servant, Prue Smith, dies in an apparent suicide-by-poisoning, Lady Jane asks Lenox, her closest friend, to investigate. The attractive young maid had been working in the London house of George Barnard, the current director of the Royal Mint. Lenox quickly determines that Smith's death was a homicide, but both Barnard and Scotland Yard resist that conclusion, forcing him to work discreetly. Aided by his Bunter-like butler and friend, Graham, the detective soon identifies a main suspect, only to have that theory shattered by that man's murder. Finch laces his writing with some Wodehousian touches and devises a solution intricate enough to fool most readers. Lovers of quality historical whodunits will hope this is the first in a series.

As in Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four, a crime committed in India has consequences in England years later in Finch's second Victorian whodunit The September Society to feature amateur detective Charles Lenox (after 2007's A Beautiful Blue Death). Since a prologue set in 1847 India makes clear that a double murder there is connected to a murder in London in 1866, there's little mystery about the general nature of the motive behind the later crime. Lady Annabelle Payson consults the Peter Wimsey–like Lenox after the disappearance of her Oxford undergraduate son, George, who left behind in his college room a dead cat and a note referring to the September Society. When George turns up dead as well, Lenox vows to track down the killer, aided by his manservant, the Bunter-like Graham. While neither the prose nor the puzzle are at the level of A Beautiful Blue Death, that volume showed enough promise to suggest that the author is capable of better in the next installment.

The near simultaneous murders on Christmas night of two giants of Fleet Street—Daily Telegraph writer Winston Carruthers and Daily News editor Simon Pierce—rock 1866 London in Finch's absorbing third historical The Fleet Street Murders (after 2008's The September Society). These sensational crimes disturb holiday festivities at the Mayfair home of amateur detective Charles Lenox, who jumps at the chance to further his crime-solving career. In the meantime, Lenox's restless fiancée, Lady Jane Grey, may delay their impending nuptials while Lenox is also off running for Parliament in distant Stirrington, where he learns the seamy underside of British politics. The multifaceted case includes a coded letter, wartime espionage, a gang slaying, bribery and eavesdropping, making it all fearfully complicated in the words of Inspector Jenkins of Scotland Yard. An exciting boat chase on the Thames leads to a slightly incongruous happy ending.

Set in 1860s London, Finch's fourth mystery featuring gentleman detective Charles Lenox A Stranger in Mayfair (after 2009's The Fleet Street Murders) finds Lenox newly married to his longtime friend, Lady Jane Grey, and newly elected to Parliament. When Ludovic Starling, a slight acquaintance, asks Lenox to look into the bludgeoning murder of his footman, Frederick Clarke, Lenox, who wonders why Starling hasn't called in Scotland Yard, at first declines. In the end, despite the demands of his new vocation, Lenox agrees to help. The investigator, who's troubled to learn that Starling has been less than forthright with him, can't accept the police theory that a rival servant killed Clarke. Finch equips Lenox with his own Bunter in the person of a former butler turned political secretary, but the pair come across as weak, warmed-over versions of the golden age Dorothy Sayers originals. Portentous chapter endings undermine the otherwise solid prose.

Give 'em a try--I think you'll enjoy them.

~TEC

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