The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch is a prequel to the Charles Lenox series, which takes readers back to Lenox's very first case and the ruthless serial killer who would set him on the course to become one of London’s most brilliant detectives (available February 20, 2018).
London, 1850: A young Charles Lenox struggles to make a name for himself as a detective…without a single case. Scotland Yard refuses to take him seriously and his friends deride him for attempting a profession at all. But when an anonymous writer sends a letter to the paper claiming to have committed the perfect crime―and promising to kill again―Lenox is convinced that this is his chance to prove himself.
The writer’s first victim is a young woman whose body is found in a naval trunk, caught up in the rushes of a small islet in the middle of the Thames. With few clues to go on, Lenox endeavors to solve the crime before another innocent life is lost. When the killer’s sights are turned toward those whom Lenox holds most dear, the stakes are raised and Lenox is trapped in a desperate game of cat and mouse.
For a little more than an hour on that May morning in 1850, the only sound in the flat in St. James’s Square was the rustling of newspapers, punctuated occasionally by the crisp shear of a pair of sharpened scissors through newsprint.
There were two men at the highly polished breakfast table by the window, three stories above street level. One was in an impeccable gray suit, the other in a ratty brown smoking jacket. Both were too intent upon their work to glance out from this high vantage at their panoramic view of the soft spring day: the shy sunlight; the irregular outlines of the two nearby parks, lying serene within the smoke and stone of the city; the new leaves upon the trees, making their innocent green way into life, on branches still so skinny that they quivered like the legs of a foal.
Finally Charles Lenox—the one in the smoking jacket—threw down the last of his newspapers.
“Ha! Done,” he said. “You’re as slow as a milk train, Graham.”
There was a teapot on the table, and Lenox poured himself another cup from it, adding a spoonful of sugar from a small silver bowl. He took a satisfied bite from a piece of cinnamon toast whose existence he had previously forgotten, and which had been prepared by the discreetly well-dressed man sitting opposite him, his valet.
“It’s not speed but quality of attention that matters, sir,” Graham said. He didn’t look up from his own newspaper, the second-to-last of a towering pile.
“What a lot of nonsense,” replied Lenox, rising and stretching his arms out. “Anyway, I’ll get dressed while you finish. How many have you got so far?”
“Nine, sir.” “Ten for me.”
Graham’s pile of clipped articles was much tidier than Lenox’s. But he did look up now—as if tempted to say something less than entirely respectful—and then gave his familiar slight smile, shook his head, and resumed his study. He was a compact, sandy-haired person, with a face that was gentle and temperate but looked as if it could keep a secret.
There were few people Lenox cared for or trusted more.
When the young master of the house emerged again, it was changed out of his shabby jacket and into a handsome suit of his own, a heather gray two shades lighter than Graham’s and perhaps thirty times as expensive. Such was life in England: Lenox had been born to a family of aristocrats, Graham to a family of tenant farmers. Yet they were true friends. Graham had been Lenox’s scout throughout three years at Balliol College, Oxford, and following Lenox’s graduation seven months before had moved to London with him as manservant—seven months, for Lenox, of exhilaration, missteps, uncertainty, and novelty.
Why? Because as his peers from Oxford were settling into the usual pursuits, Lenox was trying, against the better advice of nearly every soul he encountered, and so far with absolutely no success at all, to become something that did not exist: a private detective.
He was also, most unhappily, in love.
Graham was done now. “How many did you finish with?”
Lenox asked this question as he peered into an oval mirror and straightened his tie. He had a bright face, with a very short-clipped beard and light brown hair and eyes. He still did not quite believe himself to be an adult. But evidently he was, for he was the possessor of these airy and spacious rooms in the heart of Mayfair.
This one, large and central, had the atmosphere of a gentlemen’s club. There were books scattered about it, comfortable armchairs, and handsome oil paintings on the wall, though the brightness of the sunlight in the windows made it feel less confined than most gentlemen’s clubs. It also contained (to his knowledge) no slumbering gentlemen, whereas gentlemen’s clubs generally did, in Lenox’s experience. There were tokens here and there of his two great interests, besides detection, that was. These were travel and the world of Ancient Rome. There was a small—but authentic—bust of Marcus Aurelius tilted window-ward on one bookshelf, and everywhere were numerous stacks of maps, many of them much-marked and overcrossed with penciled itineraries, fantasies of adventure. Russia was his current preoccupation.
It was this room in which he spent all but his sleeping hours. “Ten articles, sir,” said Graham, who also spent a great deal of time here.
“Evens, then. Shall we go over them this afternoon?” “By all means, sir.”
Normally they would have compared their findings immediately. Graham—sharper than all but a few of the fellow students that Lenox had known at England’s greatest university—had become his most valuable sounding board as he embarked on his new career. Every morning they each read the same set of papers and cut out the articles they thought were of any relevance, however oblique, to the matter of crime in London.
They rarely matched more than seven or eight of their selections. (Ten was about an average total.) Half the fun was in seeing where they hadn’t overlapped. The other half was in the immense chronology of crime-related articles that Lenox, who was by nature a perfectionist, a completist, had managed so far to accumulate.
This morning he had an engagement, however, so they would have to wait to add to their archive.
Lenox donned a light overcoat. Graham saw him to the door. “A very happy birthday, Mr. Lenox, sir.”
“Ah!” Lenox grinned. “I reckoned you’d forgot. Thank you, Graham, thank you very much. Are my gloves at hand?”
“In the pocket of your coat, sir.”
Lenox patted his pockets and felt them. “So they are.” Then he smiled. “At hand? Did you catch that?”
“Very good, sir.”
“It was a pun. Gloves, hands.”
Graham nodded seriously. “One of these retroactive puns you hear so much about, sir, conceived only during its accidental commission.” “On the contrary, very carefully plotted, and then executed flawlessly, which is what really counts.”
He checked his tie in the mirror once more, and then left, bounding downstairs with the energy of a man who had youth, money, and the prospect before him that day of breakfast with an amiable party. On the sidewalk, however, he hesitated. Something had stuck in his mind. Worth bothering about? Reluctantly, he decided that it was, yes.
He took the stairs back up two at a time. Graham was tidying away their breakfast, and looked up expectantly when Lenox entered. “Sir?” “The one about the month ‘anniversary’?” Lenox said. “You saw that?”
“Of course, sir.”
Lenox nodded. “I assumed—but it was in that dishrag, the Challenger.” This was one of the least reputable newspapers in England. “Still, if today’s May second—pull out the clippings from April eighth to the thirteenth, say, would you? Perhaps even the seventh and the fourteenth, to be careful.”
“By all means, sir.”
Lenox felt better for having come back upstairs. The letter had bothered him. He touched his hat. “Obliged, Graham. Good luck with Mrs. Huggins. Just steer clear of her, I say.”
Graham frowned. Mrs. Huggins was Lenox’s housekeeper. Lenox neither wished to have nor enjoyed having a housekeeper, but his mother had insisted immovably upon her employment when he moved to London, and both Lenox and Graham were in the midst of dealing with the consequences of that rigidity. “Well—”
“No, I know. Close quarters. Anyhow I shall be back before long. Keep heart till then.”
This time Lenox went downstairs and strode into the streets without turning back.
From St. James’s Square he walked up Pall Mall, with its imposing row of private clubs. There was a scent of tobacco on the breeze. The sky was smoothing from white into a pure blue. No clouds.
He had been twenty-three for nine hours.
Rum, he thought. It felt a very advanced age. Yesterday, or thereabouts, he had been fourteen; then in a flash nineteen; tomorrow, no doubt, he would be white haired, his grandchildren (or the younger members of a gentlemen’s club) ignoring him as he sat in his comfortable spot by the fire.
Ah, well, such was life.
The clip they had both taken from the Challenger that morning, May 2, remained on his mind as he walked. He had always had a very good recall, and the piece had been short. He was therefore able to run over it exactly in his mind, probing for points of softness, susceptibility.
It has been roughly a week shy of one month since I committed the perfect crime.
Perhaps in doing so I should have foreseen how little remark the press would make upon it, and how little progress the police make in solving it. Nevertheless it has been an anti-climax— especially as murder is a crime generally taken quite seriously (too seriously, if we are honest with ourselves about the numerousness and average intellectual capacity of our population) in our society—to witness how little comment my own small effort has aroused.
I therefore give you advance warning that I shall commit another perfect crime to mark this “anniversary.” A second woman. It seems only just to my mind. Perhaps this declaration will excite the generally sluggish energies of England’s press and police into action; though I place no great faith in the notion.
Far and away the likeliest thing was that this letter was a fraud. An editor at the Challenger who needed to fill three inches of column. The second likeliest was that it was a hoax; the third likeliest was that it was a harmless delusion; far down the list, four or five spots, was the chance that someone had in fact committed a perfect crime a little less than a month earlier, and written to boast of it.
Four or five spots, though—not so far down the list, really, as to make it impossible. Lenox cast his mind back to the period three weeks or so before, which was populated with several crimes of interest.
Most of them solved, however. None of them perfect, either, that he could recall. But Graham would pull the clippings. And hadn’t there been—?
But now Lenox found that he was turning up Singletary Street, which put him in sight of Rules. Soon he would be sitting next to Elizabeth. His heart began to beat a little more quickly, and as he opened the door of the restaurant where his elder brother had arranged a birthday breakfast for him, the letter slipped out of his mind.
Charles’s brother, Edmund, who would one (hopefully distant) day be Sir Edmund Lenox, 11th Baronet of Markethouse, was his only sibling. They greeted each other with an affectionate handshake at the door of a comfortable paneled room. Beside Edmund was his young wife, Molly (Emily in more formal settings), who was pretty and countryish, not most at home in London. “Happiest of birthdays, my dear fellow,” Edmund said. “Well, thank you.”
“I remember when I was twenty-three.”
“I would be worried if you couldn’t remember three years ago.” “Halcyon days,” said Edmund with mock rue.
Molly kissed him, laughing. “Happy birthday, Charles.” He kissed her back. “Thank you, my dear sister.”
The two brothers looked similar, but Edmund was fuller in the shoulders than Charles, who was more naturally willowy, of good height but always reckoned taller than he was because of his slenderness.
They had grown up in the Sussex countryside—and those were, in truth, halcyon days; each of them a horse for his tenth birthday, swimming in the pond next to Lenox House during summers, long-standing family traditions at Christmas, two happy parents, on to Harrow (one of the nation’s pair of great public schools) at thirteen, and then, like toppling dominoes, to the University of Oxford. Lenox was at an age when his childhood felt at once very near and very far. So much had intervened between that tenth birthday and this twenty-third one, as if the former had happened either that morning or a hundred years ago. (His horse at Lenox House, Cinder, was fourteen now. Imagine that!)
In this room, coming across to greet him one by one with hearty handshakes as they noticed him, were representatives from the various phases of his life. Their amiable fat-jowled older cousin Homer Lenox was sipping a glass of warm negus by the fire, speaking to their aunt Martha, whom they had both loathed as children and now both rather liked. Lenox’s particular friend from Harrow, Hugh Smith, strode over. There were Oxford friends, too, a part of Lenox’s little set in London here. A happy small gathering, whose constituents, one would have said, bespoke a celebrant of exceptional good fortune. And the Lord knew it was true his life had been fluid, untroubled by larger worries, essentially without difficulties. He was deeply conscious of it.
Except that now he had made this queer decision to become a consulting detective.
Lenox knew, though he was determined to ignore the fact, that during these first seven months in London, he had become a joke. To think of it too much would have pained him, however. And among these twelve or so people, at any rate, he was yet loved.
Soon they were all seated, and he found himself next to Elizabeth. They had said a brief hello earlier, but now she turned to him with a face ready to be pleased, fingers running idly along a silver necklace she often wore.
“Well—tell me, Charles,” she said, “are you going to see Obaysch?” He gave her a look of consternation. “Not you, too.”
She looked at him with reproach. “Don’t be a curmudgeon.”
He smiled. She was a pale-cheeked young woman of nineteen, in a blue dress, with lively dark eyes and white, even teeth. They were very close friends, perhaps even what you would call best friends.
She had been married for just more than three months now. In love days into her first London season.
“I take it you’ve been, then?” he asked.
“Of course. He was quite a sight, the dear. Still just a baby.” Unconsciously she touched the spot where a gray ribbon encircled her dress; she must, Lenox thought, his reflex for observation never switched wholly off, have thought every day since her marriage of the quickening that would mean she was with child.
“From what I hear, he wallows a great deal.”
“There are people of whom I could say the same,” she said, looking at him dryly, and turned slightly away to take a spoonful of soup.
Lenox laughed. He picked up his own spoon. “I am never entirely certain how personal your comments are.”
“Good,” she said.
Their conversation was the same one happening all over the city, because at the London Zoo, just then, was the greatest commotion the metropolis had witnessed in many years, perhaps even since the Queen had introduced the city to Prince Albert. This Obaysch was what these natural philosophers had chosen to call, with straight faces apparently, a hippopotamus: the first in Europe since the time of the Romans, the first in England itself—well, ever, inasmuch as any learned person at the Royal Academy was able to discern. Ten thousand people (an enormous number, perhaps twenty times the average) were visiting the zoo each day to lay eyes on the creature.
He was a plump potato-shaped fellow, at least according to the illustrations Lenox had seen in the papers and the descriptions that even very exalted members of the aristocracy, who wouldn’t deign to look at certain foreign royals but had visited the hippopotamus with breathless excitement, had provided him.
“What tricks does he do?” Lenox asked Elizabeth. “Tricks!”
She looked appalled. “I don’t know if you have fully grasped the dignity of this animal.”
She gave him a disappointed shake of her head. “Tricks, indeed.” Great ceremony had preceded the hippopotamus, which had traveled up the Nile with an entire herd of cattle to provide it milk, a troop led with pride by Sir Charles Augustus Murray, Her Majesty’s consul to Egypt, who had enjoyed his triumph for less than a fortnight before finding his august reputation permanently sullied by the new nickname “Hippopotamus Murray.” (No matter how admiringly he was addressed in this fashion, it seemed doubtful to Lenox that Murray could feel quite content with it, after such a long and distinguished nonhippopotamus-based career.) Now there were vendors selling little hippopotami figurines outside the zoo. The rulers on the Continent were sick with envy. Children played nothing but hippo in the streets.
The next step was to find Obaysch a mate, and the energies of many stout Englishmen in Egypt were no doubt being squandered on that project as Charles and Elizabeth ate their soup. (Even now Lenox always thought of his mother’s nursery-era lesson in manners when there was soup at table: “Like ships upon the sea, I push my spoon away from me.”)
“Anyhow,” Elizabeth went on, “when I’m in the country there will be few enough spectacles. I ought to enjoy those in London while I can.”
She was moving to her new husband’s estate in the autumn, when his military regiment returned to England, to take up her rightful position as the wife of the heir to an earldom; second or third lady of the county.
That meant there were good works in her future, visits to the vicarage. Some glamour, too, to be sure—but as their friend Nellie had put it, country glamour. Because of her personal qualities, she deserved, in Lenox’s estimation, both high position and high excitement. She would have only the former in her life beginning that autumn.
“You’ll return often, I hope, however,” said Lenox lightly, though his heart fluttered. He had never proposed. He felt a familiar dull pain at his lack of courage; he had missed his chance. Sometimes, late in the small hours of the night, he wondered if he had missed his only chance. “Your friends here will miss you.”
She pushed back against the insinuation of his question slightly— at least in her posture, in her voice, a certain formality entering them, though never anything like unfriendliness. “Oh yes, I imagine, when James finds it necessary.” She leaned forward slightly to address the young gentleman on Lenox’s left; a third. “Hugh, have you seen the hippopotamus?”
Hugh gave them a scornful look. “Have I seen the hippopotamus.
Haven’t I seen the fellow six times?” “Six!”
“I consider him more of a brother than a friend.” “Disgraceful,” said Lenox.
“You’re outnumbered,” said Elizabeth. “This is a table that looks favorably upon Obaysch. Hugh and I won’t hear a word against him.” Across from them, deep in conversation with Eleanor Arden, another of their set, was Lenox’s aunt. He appealed to her as a last resort. “Aunt Martha,” he said, and the table fell silent as she looked up. “Tell me that you, at least, haven’t condescended to visit the London Zoo in the past two weeks. The old ways must still mean something.”
She hesitated—a gray-haired and portly older woman, resplendent in a spangled dress of gold and red—and then said, “I must admit that I paused there yesterday.” Everyone at the table burst into kind laughter. She gave the room a generalized look of indignation. “One likes to keep abreast, you know, even at my age.”
When the soup had been cleared and there was a lull in the conversation, even the hippopotamus parts of it, Edmund stood up. He lifted his glass.
“What about a toast?” he said.
“Yes yes,” said one or two people, and lifted their glasses too. “Charles moved to London in the fall, as you all know,” said Edmund. “So far he has not been imprisoned, lost money in a three-shell game on the Strand, or eloped to the Continent with a dancer.”
There was more laughter, and Lenox called out, “Give me six weeks.”
“He has also,” Edmund said with stout, awkwardly footed pride, “begun his very significant work as a detective—very significant work, very.”
“Hear, hear,” said Hugh.
“I am proud of him for it, and I think we ought to have a double toast to him for it. Join me, please. Two cheers for Charles.”
As they cheered, Lenox felt himself blush, a little hollowness of embarrassment in his throat and chest. He would have preferred no reference to his work. But he accepted the toast—said thank you— all here loved him—the moment passed—and soon the conversation again became general.
It was beneath the station of all those present here to have a profession, unless it be politics, arms, or God. It had been many generations since the families of any of them had done work with their hands, season upon season, year upon year, century upon century.
A gentleman scientist, fine, or in an eccentric case an explorer, a collector, an equerry, a horse breeder.
But even the most eccentric of these would never have dreamed of taking work as a detective. England’s caste system was too inflexible to allow for it. It was this fact that had poisoned Lenox’s seven months here. Only unto illness, not death, and mostly for his poor parents; but still, still.
Making it worse was how desperately little headway he had made. He was laughed off in Scotland Yard (he had tried repeatedly to make allies there) and laughed off in a different kind of way at the parties— where he was still welcome, but more often than before because of his brother, or because of Elizabeth, Eleanor, Hugh, his friends. In the fullness of these seven months, he had had two cases, precisely. And this despite charging no fee! He had solved both: one a pitiably simple matter of a missing fiancé (he had an extant family in Bournemouth, unfortunately for the young woman who had entreated Lenox to find him so that she could marry him), and one an embezzler at a midsized firm in the city.
Both cases had been referred to him by friends. Neither had led to more work.
At the end of the breakfast, some two hours later, a great deal of it spent reminiscing over old village cricket matches with his cousin Homer, he found himself momentarily in a quiet corner of the room with Elizabeth, who was donning her overcoat.
She was due at a luncheon—straight from one meal to another, she said, and sheepishly added that when she was fat, she would have to feign an illness to avoid going out—and Lenox, putting his own cloak on, took the opportunity to ask how she had been, which parties she would be going to—
But suddenly, realizing that they were by the grace of chance briefly isolated from everyone else, he said, anxiously, “Listen here, do you think I’m a fool? About the detective business. Answer me honestly, Elizabeth—be brutal. Nobody else will. Nobody whose opinion I care for.”
She gave the question a look of real surprise, and then shook her head, concern in her eyes. “Never, never, never,” she said. She touched his cheek. “I think you are valiant as a lion, Charles. And wondrous affable.”
Before he had a chance to reply, she had turned away to say her other goodbyes. For his part, he did not move for at least ten, fifteen seconds; he could still feel her hand on his cheek.
Copyright © 2018 Charles Finch.
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Charles Finch is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries, including The Inheritance and A Beautiful Blue Death, which was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007. He is a graduate of Yale and Oxford, and lives in Chicago.