Although Finch’s novels featuring Charles Lenox are billed as mysteries, it is the historical details and characters along with the plot that keeps us reading and wanting more. In An Old Betrayal, amateur sleuth and progressive parliamentarian Charles Lenox finds that his strong social conscience is stretched in different directions. With his warm circle of friends, his invaluable servant Graham, and his gorgeous wife, Lady Jane, Charles—together with his best friend Lord John Dallington—has a new mystery to solve.
Fresh from the workings of the Commons to John Dallington’s salubrious home at Half Moon Street, we see Charles still expressing an interest in detective work. The current mystery is accelerated by a letter, an enigmatic missive wrapped up in a plea to John to come to Gilbert’s restaurant at Charing Cross Station. The letter writer requests anonymity, appearing to live in a state of mortal fear.
Never one to miss an opportunity to plunge into a case, Charles decides to attend the restaurant, discovering that the letter writer is a woman sitting right next to him. Cursing himself for his narrowmindedness, the sighting jumpstarts Lenox’s desire to uncover the riddle of the woman’s identity. Soon enough, Lenox is bringing his greater experience and his knowledge of the history of crime to bear on this new case and to a bloody murder at the Graves Hotel. Charles and John are plunged into a case of mistaken identity in a Victorian London more than adequately supplied with crime.
Although pivotal to the plot, the murder mystery plays a bit of a secondary role to the other events in Lenox's life. While Charles’ marriage is as strong as ever, Lady Jane Grey voices concerns about his happiness and his willingness to continue as a member of parliament. His friends Toto (Jane’s cousin and closest friend) and her husband, Thomas, face another challenge in their marriage. Toto informs Lady Jane and Charles that she’s beside herself over the slanderous behavior of Polly Buchanan. A popular figure in London society, Polly has a terrible reputation among the wives and “a fond one in the clubs of Pall Mall.“ Concerned that her husband is having an affair, Toto insists that Charles do something about this woman who is so intent to “trespass on conventional morality.”
All is bathed in sorrow and the faint tincture of intrigue. The murder mystery itself is well-imagined and not entirely obvious, which is quite an achievement for an author who continues to make a steady name for himself re-imagining Victorian England. From a train passenger in terrible danger to a killer who leaves no telling detail, Lenox and Dallington are forced to lay out the facts of the case despite Dallington’s illness and the “missed signal”: mysterious Henrietta Goodwin and her connection to the highest reaches of power, and also the Queen’s social secretary, gorgeous Miss Grace Ammons, who once lived in Paris and who Lenox is convinced has an unsavory past.
I valued this latest installment for Finch’s grand depictions of Buckingham Palace and of Queen Victoria herself, and also for the appropriately depicted parliamentary machinations that seem to blindside Charles at every turn. Through Charles’s narration, inner thoughts and remembered joys and regrets, the reader truly gets to know his world. That Charles grows disillusioned is almost expected from the moment he investigates Archie Godwin‘s demise, but the continuing friendship between him and John remains an ongoing pleasure. The seeds of their comradeship are sown in the roots of their place in society, with Charles often battered about by a thinly disguised veil of political menace.
Finch does a good job of portraying London within its political time period, weaving ancient animosities together in a mystery steeped in fanaticism and the warring factions of aristocratic families. Lenox must balance his own needs against a frustrating investigation and a constabulary who must keep the crimes from the public and from the attention of the Queen. In the end, Lenox’s decision is quite climatic even as the other threads of the story keep us turning the pages late into the night.