In his latest Charles Lenox mystery, Finch unfolds his protagonist’s latest investigation in lush, rhythmic sentences. sketching his characters with deft precision. Their dialog reflects the idioms of the Victorian period, building bit-by-bit an ineffable sense of dread. A winter’s night looms over London, the city is hushed, and a new snow is softening everything into “an angelic whiteness.” Charles finds himself an intruder upon the scene, this ex-parliamentarian cum private detective who is at this moment lying in wait for a murderer.
The Laws of Murder: A Charles Lenox Mystery isn’t your simple, predictable story of suspense. The suspects in the slaying of Charles’s beloved colleague Inspector Thomas Jenkins behave in surprisingly nonchalant ways, exposing a dark heart operating at the center of London’s aristocratic elite. Many of the suspects (and their aren’t that many) reveal their own little surprises, delivering electric jolts of anxiety that at various times stifle the investigation conducted by Lenox, his trusted partner Lord John Dallington, and Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Nicholson.
Called to the darkest corner of Regents Park, Charles and John discover there were no witnesses to Jenkins’s death. His body was found lying in beautiful Portland Place and just twenty feet in front of the house of the Marques of Wakefield. The situation requires great care: Wakefield vanished just two days previously and is nowhere to be found. He’s close to the Queen and holds a title that is one of the highest in the land, but Wakefield has long been considered to be behaving like a “subtle madman.”
Charles is convinced that Wakefield must have murdered Thomas. They will learn the truth soon enough. Polly Strickland, Charles’s partner in their fledgling detective agency, sees a pattern in the claim tickets left behind in Jenkins’s shoe. The pattern in the form of a puzzle is at first misleading but eventually leads Charles to the Southwark docks and into the hold of the ship The Gunner, where Lenox faces the flurrying, indiscriminate totality of London’s criminal underworld.
In beautiful, rich descriptions, Finch brings to life Lenox’s London of 1876, from the horse-drawn carriages passing down Chiltern Street to the young men in spats and top hats, from the vendors hawking fried onions and potatoes to the stylish hotels facing Hyde Park. Both Lenox and Dallington are mostly stymied by the case. At first, the gunshot in Portland Place seems totally unconnected to a body stuffed in a trunk, the discovery of poisoned wine, an attack upon one of Wakefield’s servants, the whereabouts of a mysterious figure by the name of Andrew Hartley Francis, and the nuns of St. Anselm’s (next to Wakefield) who operate under a vow of silence and seem to have seen more than they’re letting on.
Forced to seek solace in the arms of his beloved wife, Lady Jane Lenox, and young daughter, Sophia, Lenox finds this case one of the most difficult he has ever encountered. Solving it through luck or cunning remains to be seen. With such a surfeit of incident, it might be just too simple to decipher the links between Jenkins’s untimely death and Wakefield’s suspicious vanishing. Determined to get the heart of all of the dirty work, Charles cultivates a certain tone of voice for use on recalcitrant witnesses, a steady mixture of superiority, amicability and confidentiality.
Although the momentum of the story takes a bit of time to gather strength (and as this is a Victorian thriller), the characters are tailored to reflect the rigid propriety of the 1870s. The revelations at the center of the novel really give the story its Dickensian, gothic flavor. Charles’s new career with Polly, Dallington, and Frenchman Lemaire reflect the hard realities of trying to build a business when a certain powerful lord is a fierce partisan and a great enemy of Charles’s allies in Parliament.
Finch does a fine job of showing how the servants, working classes, and various aristocrats are surprisingly connected. Best of all is Finch’s ability to describe how Charles develops over time and how he always seems to be able face his challenges head-on with Dallington and his lovely, beloved Lady Jane always by his side.