This London-based mystery series opens in the winter of 1865. Lady Jane Grey approaches her childhood friend and next door neighbor Charles Lenox with a problem. A former housemaid, who has moved to another household, has been found dead under suspicious circumstances. As a private investigator and dear friend, Lenox readily agrees to help.
With the police force still in its infancy, amateur investigation is even more unwelcome to the authorities now than it will be for Sherlock Holmes some decades hence. Like Sherlock Holmes, Lenox is of independent means and only too happy to let the bumbling bobbies take the credit for his brilliance in return for the opportunity to exercise his mind and experience the thrill of the chase. Lenox’s LeStrade is Inspector Exeter of Scotland Yard. Ambitious, unimaginative and clueless, he nevertheless recognizes when he needs his bacon saved– which, fortunately for Finch’s readers, looks like it will be fairly often. He calls on Lenox for help, albeit secretly, when he realizes he is stymied.
Prudence Smith has been found dead of an apparent overdose in the household of prominent politician George Barnard, where she has recently become employed to be closer to her fiancé, who is also employed in the household. Lenox, with the help of a close doctor friend Thomas McConnell, soon discovers that the maid’s death was murder, done with a rather uncommon and expensive poison which could not have been accessible to anyone with a servant’s income. His investigatory efforts become focused on Barnard’s family and guests at the time of the murder.
Some characters are introduced who look like they will be regulars, and the readers can see some future plot potential here. There is Charles’ friend Lady Jane (romance alert!), Charles’ brother Edmund (country squire and member of Parliament), his friend McConnell (alcoholic), and McConnell’s wife (precarious marriage), and his true and loyal valet Graham (Lenox’s Bunter).
With its London historical setting and focus on contemporary class distinctions, the reader will be reminded of Anne Perry’s Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mysteries. The tone, however, is much breezier and perhaps more reminiscent of Marion Chesney’s Edwardian mystery series. Though there is plenty of conflict around him, Lenox himself seems untouched by it all. He has no character-building war injury. He suffers from no post-traumatic-stress-disorder. He has no unhealthy addictions to drugs or alcohol. He mourns no past tragedies. He’s cheerfully free of guilty secrets. He seems to be completely without neuroses. He seems, in fact, utterly content with life, eternally optimistic and unruffled. His biggest problem in life is his inadequate pair of wet boots.
If it sounds like I’m making fun of poor Charles, really I’m not. I’ve just become so accustomed to pensive detectives riddled with character flaws and steeped in misery that I’m simply flabbergasted to encounter such a well-adjusted protagonist. Once you get over the shock to the system it’s quite comforting, actually. The reader is invited along to share the lovingly described meals, glasses of claret by the fire, good books savored, lazy afternoon naps – all interspersed with periods of detecting activity and heady excitement. This is what I would call a truly “cozy” mystery. Many readers do not want a sleuth’s personal drama intruding on a perfectly good detective story. Why shouldn’t the main character be happy and get on with solving the crime, by Jove?
Give it a whirl. There are more in the series after this one, and personally I plan to turn to Charles Lenox periodically when Ian Rutledge has got me down!
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