Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Beautiful Blue Death [Review]

Title: A Beautiful Blue Death

Author: Charles Finch

Copyright: 2007; published by St. Martin's Minotaur, New York (ISBN 9780312359775; cover image from

Genre: Mystery/historical

Length: 320

Summary: Charles Lenox is a wealthy Victorian gentleman in his early forties; he has a preference for tea at his own hearth and seeks only to find decent boots that will keep his feet dry in the snows of London. He would really rather like an opportunity to travel, but something always seems to prevent his departure, usually a crime of some ilk. He's just cleared up the matter of the Marlborough forgery for the Yard but now, his neighbor, Lady Jane Gray, is seriously distressed regarding the death of an upstairs maid who was once in her employ. Prue Smith is dead; might Charles find out exactly how and why? Despite the inclement damp, he sets forth immediately.

The reader accompanies Lenox into various clubs of Victorian gentlemen and darker hang-outs of others, all in pursuit of the murderer. Is it Barnard, the financier? Is it either of Barnard's two depressing nephews, Claude and/or Eustance? Soames, an old friend, is a potential suspect as are the unknown Potts and Duff , all of whom are guests in Barnard's home at the time of the murder. Knives and poisons are elements of the mystery as well. Can Lenox work out the solution before some ham-handed inspector from Scotland Yard destroys the vital clue?

The working out of the murderer's identity in A Beautiful Blue Death is complex but almost of secondary importance to the book. This is to be expected of a debut novel in a new series; the focus is on establishing the particular personality of the sleuth as he goes about the business of solving the crime. As the book progresses, we see Charles emerge from the natural self-absorption of a confirmed bachelor to realize the importance of his relationships with those who are closest to him -- his brother, his neighbor, and his butler.

Characterization is good with slight touches of humor surfacing now and again. I particularly liked one moment when a grim housekeeper objected to the laying of a dead body on her kitchen table. The detective takes little notice of her umbrage but offers the assisting footman a job with a raise of 10 pounds if the man continues to be of service in arranging the body for an immediate medical examination. The extract I have chosen also gives a slight sense of the humorous tone.


If at twenty he had been single-minded and occasionally obsessive, at forty he had mellowed and now preferred to sit in front of a warm fire, reading the newspaper with a cup of tea in his hand. He had always loved his friends and his family dearly but took more pleasure in them now. He had always loved his work but allowed himself to be diverted from it more often now. It had simply happened that he had never married, and now he was a thorough bachelor, comfortable company but set in his ways and a good deal more snug at home than in the first ambition of his youth. Lenox hadn’t changed, in his own estimation; and yet of course he had, as all men do.

The tea tray sat on a small side table by his chair, next to a stack of books, several of which had fallen to the floor, where he had left them the night before. The servants had learned by now to leave his library as he left it, except for an occasional dusting. He poured a healthy cup of tea, took a large scoop of sugar and a splash of milk, and then turned his attention to the plate of toast. Graham had thoughtfully added a small cake, which was a rare treat. But then, it had been a trying day.

Also relevant: There is, in my opinion, a slight awkwardness on the part of the author in his selected narrative pov. You get some sense of what's going on in Charles's head, but never to a level of intimacy. It may well be in keeping with the formality of the Victorian period in which the story is set, but there were occasions when attention given to the precise external movements of a character seemed more important to the author than revealing the character's internal thoughts. I don't know that this was a particular flaw in the writing, but it was an aspect that kept me as a reader at more of a distance than modern writers usually maintain.

I liked Charles Lenox as a character. He's a trifle self-satisfied, but he's not pompous and he has the grace to feel sheepish following a mistake. I liked the degree of historical detail - adequate but not overwhelming. This is a good beginning and I'd certainly recommend it as a nice relaxing read. This could build nicely as a series.