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Book Author: Charles Finch

AN EXTRAVAGANT DEATH by Charles Finch: Book Review

An Englishman born and bred, Charles Lenox is about to take a voyage, somewhat reluctantly, to the United States.

In a previous novel, Lenox’s investigation led to uncovering a major scandal at Scotland Yard.  Now the Prime Minister himself, on behalf of the Queen’s government, has asked Lenox to allow the barristers to use his written account at the trial rather than having him give his testimony in person.  Listening to his testimony read out by the dry voice of a barrister, Benjamin Disraeli says, would be given great weight by the jury without the “ravenous press” having an opportunity to interview and harass Lenox and, of course, further embarrass the government.

Disraeli assures Lenox that there was no way the three accused Scotland Yard inspectors could go free, and thus the detective is persuaded to make himself unavailable during the trial and visit America.

Lenox is reluctant to leave his wife and their two young daughters to go to America on a fact-finding visit, as the government wishes him to do.  However, he believes it’s his duty to follow his Queen’s wishes, and Lady Jane, his wife, gives her blessing to his trip.  So he leaves, first stopping in New York and then, according to his plan, Boston.

However, the best laid plans, as they say, often go awry.  At a luncheon in Manhattan the detective meets Teddy Blaine, son of an immensely wealthy family, who is a devotee of mysteries and murder cases.  Together they set out on the train to Boston the day after the luncheon to discuss all matters relating to deduction, but after the train pulls out of the Stamford, Connecticut station it suddenly stops.

A messenger boards bearing a telegram; it says that there has been a murder in Newport, and the writer of the telegram requests that Lenox investigate it.  The message is signed William Stuyvesant Schermerhorn IV, and Blaine assures Lenox that he is a man above reproach.  Hoping that it will be easy to find the murderer, the detective agrees to a short stay in the wealthy Rhode Island enclave, and Blaine asks to follow along and perhaps be of help.

Lily Allingham is the young woman who was murdered.  Her radiant beauty had turned Newport society upside down, with its wealthy inhabitants offering party invitations and boat trips to attract her.  Two wealthy young men, Willie Schermerhorn and Lawrence Vanderbilt, were courting her, but it seems that no one knows if she had decided which one would be her future husband.  Then, in the midst of one of the city’s many balls, she unceremoniously left by herself and was later found dead on the property belonging to one of the suitors.

An Extravagant Death is an apt title for a book set in one of the wealthiest locations in the United States.  Families with the names of Astor, Vanderbilt (the latter family is considered nouveau riche and therefore not in the top tier of Newport society), Morgans, Wideners, and Schermerhorns live in their “cottages” for six weeks every summer before moving on to one of their other homes, and it’s a delight to read about the mores and scandals of the 19th-century elite.

Charles Finch’s latest novel is a wonderful addition to the Charles Lenox mysteries.  You can read more about him on many sites on the internet.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE VANISHING MAN by Charles Finch: Book Review

I always find it interesting when an author decides to write a prequel to an existing series.  The Charles Lenox novels, featuring the protagonist as a private detective, is set in the Victorian era; The Vanishing Man, the second prequel to Charles Finch’s first mystery, A Beautiful Blue Death, takes place in 1853, some 15 years into the queen’s reign.

Charles has become a bit of an outcast because of his desire to become a detective.  To choose such a profession simply isn’t done in the rigid aristocratic society into which he was born, and it has resulted in fewer luncheon invitations and a not-so-subtle withdrawal from the ranks of England’s most eligible bachelors, at least in the thoughts of the mothers of marriageable-age daughters.  But Charles is content with his decision.

Still, being human and sensitive to his demotion by society, he is pleased when he receives an invitation from the most august nobleman in the country, the Duke of Dorset.  The duke’s family ranks immediately below the royal family, and his home and personality reflect his prominence.  To call his residence a mansion would be an understatement, and it reveals the family’s position in society, having the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey as its neighbors.  And, Charles thought, “If you took the whole power of Oxford University it might compete with the duke’s.  But not with his wealth.”

When Charles arrives at Dorset’s home, he is led into the private private study, not the public private study where he takes large meetings.  Obviously the duke wants to see Charles on a most pressing and confidential matter.

A painting has been stolen from the wall of the private private study.  Charles sees that there had been eight paintings hanging, but now there are seven.  To his surprise, however, the duke tells him that the missing painting, a portrait of one of his ancestors, is of no particular value and has no sentimental meaning; it is a different painting that still hangs on the wall that is nearly priceless.  That work is the only known portrait of William Shakespeare that was painted from life.  Only three people, including Dorset, are aware of that fact, the other two being Her Royal Highness and the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, obviously both not suspected of the theft.

So Charles is commissioned to find the missing artwork under the condition of deepest secrecy.  And if that were not difficult enough, it turns out that the duke has not given Lenox the most important piece of information of all.

In addition to the wonderful characters in this series and the exciting plot, I was fascinated, as I have been in Finch’s previous novels, by the author’s ability to drop tidbits of information about the era throughout the book.  For example, did you know that when dining with the queen, as soon as she puts down her fork all her guests immediately have to do the same; this is as true today as it was in Victoria’s time.  And that every day the royal chefs had to prepare forty-eight servings of curry in case forty-eight unexpected guests of Asian descent called upon Victoria.  And if forty nine dignitaries came unexpectedly?  Apparently one of them would have to eat what the queen ate, since she herself despised curry.

The Vanishing Man is a wonderful addition to the Charles Lenox series.

You can read more about Charles Finch at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE INHERITANCE by Charles Finch: Book Review

One would think that an inheritance, especially an unexpected one, would be a welcome thing.  But that is not always the case.

Charles Lenox is surprised and a bit concerned by the letter sent to him by an old school acquaintance, Gerald Leigh, wanting to meet him again.   Gerald was a friend, although not a close one, when both were students at Harrow, the famed English boarding school that was founded in 1572.  Nearly all of the boys attending the school came from noble or wealthy families with ties to the school that went back generations, but Gerald was not one of those boys.

Regardless, his father had been determined to send him to Harrow, but Mr. Leigh’s untimely death left no money for the tuition.  Gerald, however, was notified by the school’s administration that he was the recipient of a bequest that would pay his school costs.  The unknown philanthropist was called M. B., the Mysterious Benefactor, by Gerald and Charles.  The former cursed this nameless person vigorously, as his only desire was to leave school and return home to his mother and his all-consuming study of flora and fauna.  In time he achieved this goal by flunking out, almost deliberately.

Now, thirty years later, Charles receives Gerald’s letter, arranging for an appointment at Charles’ home.  But Gerald never arrives, and the next day, when Charles goes to the hotel mentioned in the letter, it is apparent that his friend, although still registered, has not been there since the day the meeting between the two was scheduled.

Charles is concerned with other problems at the same time that he looks into Gerald’s disappearance:  his wife’s unhappiness, the tension between his two partners, and a strange crisis in Parliament.  When he does find Gerald, things get even more bizarre, for now there is a second bequest from an unknown person.  Is it the same Mysterious Benefactor from Gerald’s school days, or is it someone else?

Having read several of the books in this series, one of the things I find most delightful is the author’s clever insertion of interesting facts that I’d never given much thought to before.  The expression “by hook or by crook”?  A laborer, by generations of tradition, was allowed to get firewood from his squire’s land.  He wasn’t permitted to cut it down, but he could get any branches that had fallen by using a hooked branch or the crook of his walking stick.  “Bunk?”  It means nonsense and comes from a speech given in Buncombe County, North Carolina; it had transmogrified into bunkum and then bunk.  There are several more examples like this in The Inheritance, but you’ll have to read the book to find them.

Charles Finch has created one of the most intelligent, interesting protagonists around.  The Inheritance is the tenth book in the series, and it is as well-written and satisfying as the earlier ones.  The setting, the second half of the nineteenth century in London, is beautifully drawn, the plot is engrossing, and the personalities of all the characters are vivid.  There’s not a misstep in the novel.

You can read more about Charles Finch at various sites on the web.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

HOME BY NIGHTFALL by Charles Finch: Book Review

Charles Lenox is one of the most charming protagonists around.  The younger son of a baronet, Charles has recently returned to his first love, detecting, after spending several years in the House of Lords.  Although it’s considered not quite “the thing” for a member of the nobility to be “in trade,” Charles has decided that this is what he wants to do with his life and so is now the senior partner of Lenox, Strickland, and Dallington, private enquiry agents in London.

The novel opens with all of the city, and indeed the entire country, in upheaval following the disappearance of Muller, the renowned German pianist.  Muller got up from the piano bench at the end of a concert, walked into his dressing room, and hasn’t been seen since.  The entire concert hall was searched, as was his hotel room and all the various sites around London that the musician was known to frequent, but without result.  To coin a cliché, apparently the man disappeared into thin air.

Charles offers his services to Scotland Yard; instead, the firm of his former business partner Lemaire is chosen to find the missing man.  Naturally, this has made Charles and his partners, Polly Strickland and Lord John Dallington, even more determined to solve the case, score against Lemaire, and gain the publicity that would go with locating Muller.

At the same time, Charles is trying to help his older brother, Edmund, who is dealing with the unexpected death of his beloved wife.  Molly died suddenly after the onset of a fever, and Edmund is deep in mourning.  Making the situation even more unbearable is the fact that both their grown sons are away, one in Kenya and the other in the navy, so the ordeal of informing them of their mother’s death still hangs over Edmund.

Some of the most enjoyable aspects of Home By Nightfall are the clever asides that place the reader firmly in 19th-century England.  Did you know that at that time it was possible to rent, rather than subscribe to, the daily editions of The Times; a year’s subscription cost nine pounds, “not an inconsiderable sum.”  Instead, most readers rented the paper for a hour a day, which cost about a pound per year, while renting the previous day’s paper cost a quarter of a pound per year!  And at the time the novel takes place, there were six daily mail deliveries a day in London, four in the countryside.  No wonder no one thought to invent e-mail!

Home Before Nightfall is the ninth Charles Lenox adventure, so there’s a lot of catching up to do if this is your first look at the series.  Although this book can certainly be read on its own, it’s much more enjoyable when you know the backstory of Charles, his aristocratic wife Lady Jane, and his partners in the firm.  But if you’re too impatient to start at the beginning of the series with A Beautiful Blue Death, you can start with Home Before Nightfall.  It’s a terrific read, with believable characters and an engrossing plot.

You can read more about Charles Finch at various sites on the web.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.