A Beautiful Blue Death is the promising debut of the adventures of Victorian gentleman detective Charles Lenox.
The action of A Beautiful Blue Death kicks off in the winter of 1865. Lenox, a wealthy Londoner who solves crimes because he’s good at it, is put onto the murder of a young maid by his neighbor and closest friend, Lady Jane. The girl died while in the employ of George Barnard, a powerful political figure who insists the girl committed suicide. Lenox systematically works his way through Barnard’s household, uncovering secrets and conflicts. Another death at a high society ball throws the case into a different light and leads Lenox to an ugly truth.
A Beautiful Blue Death does a decent job of introducing Lenox and fleshing out his character and surroundings. Author Charles Finch embroiders lots of period details into the narrative, effectively evoking the era. Lenox is a mostly sympathetic character, with brains and good instincts, though sometimes he pales slightly in contrast to the more colorful supporting cast that Finch crafts for his lead. The regulars include Lady Jane, the widowed aristocrat who’s clearly perfect for lifelong bachelor Lenox; Lenox’s brother Edmund, a peer and member of the House of Lords who finds his younger sibling’s adventures fascinating; Graham, Lenox’s loyal butler, who also serves as a resourceful investigative assistant; Inspector Exeter, the prickly, ambitious Scotland Yard detective who takes Lenox’s aid, even as the two barely can tolerate one another’s existence; Thomas McConnell, a dissolute former surgeon who provides Lenox with forensic support; and Toto, McConnell’s wealthy young wife.
While Lenox is somewhat idealized, Finch gives him some blind spots and struggles through the course of the plot that help to humanize him. Lenox’s own confidence gets the better of him at a couple points and his sympathies are rather easily manipulated. But he’s also loyal and has a strong sense of fairness. Finch does an especially good job of fleshing out the odd kind of devotion that often developed in the master/servant relationships of that era. Graham’s subordinate place is never in question, but Finch finds ways to demonstrate that Lenox is as attached to his butler as Graham is to him. The Lenox/Lady Jane relationship is probably a bit coyer than it needs to be, but that kind of slow-burning reticence wasn’t exactly uncommon in the early Victorian era.
The mystery at the heart of A Beautiful Blue Death is fairly well-constructed, involving an exotic poison, a possible government conspiracy and the fractious family relations of the wealthy Barnard and his seething nephews. Most of the suspects don’t rise too far above sketches, but Barnard emerges as a more colorful specimen. By the novel’s end, he’s set up as a potential recurring thorn in Lenox’s side. Finch manages to retrofit the modern fascination for forensic science into the period without being especially anachronistic. An art like fingerprinting was in its infancy, for example, and while it plays a small role in the story, Finch also doesn’t show Lenox or Exeter being overly concerned about touching objects related to the deaths. McConnell does some “science fu” to assist Lenox’s investigation, but it largely fits within the parameters of the period.
At times A Beautiful Blue Death hits some pacing issues that drag on momentum. As interesting as the period details can be, some chapters devote a little too much time to Lenox’s domestic routines. And while the actual resolution is well handled, the revelation is staged in a way that doesn’t exactly maximize the drama of the moment.
But overall, A Beautiful Blue Death is a solid piece of period detective fiction that gets the Lenox series off to a good start. Fans of historical mysteries should find it especially appealing.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on March 8, 2016.