Fresh Meat: The Laws of Murder by Charles Finch

The Laws of Murder by Charles Finch is the 8th book in the historical mystery series featuring gentleman detective Charles Lenox, who’ll return to professional crime-solving with an awful case for the Yard (available November 11, 2014).

The year is 1876, the place is Victorian England. Gentleman and detective Charles Lenox has made a recent career change. For the last seven years he has served as a Member of Parliament, a career at which he’d always wanted to try his hand. As much as he loved being involved in politics, there was still a problem…he missed detecting. He has always been drawn to detective work, and his previous success proves that he was good at it. Prior to joining Parliament, he had made a name for himself in London. He had even taken an assistant under his wing, John Dallington, and trained him in the field. Even though he dabbled in cases during his political career, he has decided that he misses it enough to go back to it full-time.

As the book opens, Lenox has left Parliament and he joins Dallington, along with two others, to open a detective agency. Lenox believes that his prior reputation, as well as all of the help he’s given Scotland Yard in the past, will mean that the new agency will thrive. He even plans to consult for the Yard as needed, hoping to work with his old detective friends on cases that arise. But on the eve of the agency’s grand opening, members of Scotland Yard make statements to the press that aren’t exactly complimentary.

Inspector Jenkins warned that Mr. Lenox might find the transition from Parliament to the world of crime difficult, in particular. ‘If he offers them no more than his name, Mr. Lenox will likely be more of a burden than an aid to his new colleagues.’ As he may have been to his old ones, a parliamentary reporter for the Telegraph, James Wilde, confirms: ‘He was scared off by Disraeli, and had to leave with his tail between his legs.’

This setback has grave consequences, and Lenox does not receive the caseload he expected. Quite the contrary, he doesn’t receive any cases at all. The other three detectives are carrying the weight of the agency without his help. Dallington stands behind him, but the other two are clearly upset at the turn of events and fear for the survival of the agency. The weekly meetings get very uncomfortable for Lenox, as everyone announces the status of their new cases and he has nothing to add:

“Two new cases,” said Polly, and described them. One was blackmail, one embezzlement.

Dallington also had a new case; LeMaire, two. The Frenchman was the leading detective within the expatriate community, among the diplomats and the foreign traders, French and German and Scandinavian. He spoke several languages, which helped. He was also popular among the fools of the English gentry, who believed only a Frenchman could make a detective, the Vidocq touch.

“And Mr. Lenox?” said Fletcher the clerk, in his springy Dorset accent.

“Nothing new,” said Lenox, as evenly as he could.

“What a surprise,” LeMaire murmured.

All five of them looked up, and Dallington started out of his chair, white-faced with anger. “What did you say?”

LeMaire looked as surprised as any of them, immediately abashed by this hint of dissatisfaction, and after a beat he stood and with great formality said, “You have my sincerest apologies for my unthinking utterance, sir,” he said, “And I will be happy to place them in writing. I spoke without thinking.”

“It’s quite all right,” said Lenox.

When Lenox finally gets a case, it is the worst one he could have imagined. It is to consult with the Yard in investigating the murder of one of their own: a well-regarded policeman, and incidentally, one of the ones who spoke to the press about Lenox. To make things more mysterious, the dead man left word that Lenox was to be consulted, and left additional clues leading Lenox to the case he was working on when he died. It’s a case that no one else knew about, and one that might involve one of Lenox’s most despised adversaries. As Lenox investigates, he realizes that he must recreate the case the policeman was working on to figure out how it got him killed.

Victorian England is a wonderful setting for detective stories. There’s just something about traveling by horse-drawn carriage and sitting in the drawing room by the fire. There is a different art to figuring out whodunit without the help of modern-day forensics and investigative techniques that we have come to rely upon today. At one point, Lenox rigs a rope hooked to a bell across the street and into a house where the police are waiting to catch a criminal. Lenox pulls on his side of the rope when he sees the crook nearing the house, in order to warn the police he is approaching. Now you have to admit, that is so much more fun than texting. Charles Finch does a great job of bringing the time period to life and painting a picture of the age, allowing the reader to visit, if only for a short time.

It was the loveliest day yet of 1876—the sweet o’ the year, as Shakespeare had called this time in April. The sun shone a mild gold through the lightly shifting trees, and the streets below, still wet from a cleaning, sparkled brightly. The mood of the city on mornings like this one was somehow brotherly, amiable, ineffably unified. Through the windows of their second-story offices it was possible to see the small conversations that took place on every city street—the cabman calling down a joke to the fruit seller, the banter between a nurse pushing a pram and a constable swinging his whistle. Sometimes Lenox loved London very much indeed.

Life always provides its ups and downs, but this book shows one of those rare times when Lenox seems to really doubt himself. He definitely doubts his decision to open the agency. For a man who has always been successful, it is very difficult for him to deal with what he sees as failure. Always a strong person, he experiences his own inadequacy and has to deal with the feelings behind it. I found it interesting that he confided in his wife, Lady Jane, when things really got him down, and it was touching that he accepted her help without resentment or pride.

The Charles Lenox series is still going strong with Book 8, The Laws of Murder. Sometimes, as a series progresses, it can get dull, but that is definitely not the case here. The author has taken the characters and shown their growth and the changes that life brings them. This allows the reader to follow these changes and experience new and interesting aspects of the characters’ lives. When Charles Lenox changes careers, it’s like a new beginning for the series, and I look forward to reading what else comes his way.

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Kerry Hammond has been an avid mystery reader ever since she discovered Nancy Drew at the age of 8. She enjoys all types of stories, from thrillers to cozies to historical mysteries.

Read all posts by Kerry Hammond for Criminal Element.

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