Home by Nightfall: New Excerpt

Home by Nightfall: A Charles Lenox Mystery by Charles Finch, James Langton
Home by Nightfall: A Charles Lenox Mystery by Charles Finch, James Langton
Home by Nightfall by Charles Finch is the 9th Victorian mystery featuring gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox (available November 10, 2015).

A death in the family brings gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox back to the country house where he grew up—just in time to confront an odd, unsettling crime in a nearby village.

It’s London in 1876, and the whole city is abuzz with the enigmatic disappearance of a famous foreign pianist. Lenox has an eye on the matter—as a partner in a now-thriving detective agency, he’s a natural choice to investigate. Just when he’s tempted to turn his focus to it entirely, however, his grieving brother asks him to come down to Sussex, and Lenox leaves the metropolis behind for the quieter country life of his boyhood. Or so he thinks. In fact, something strange is afoot in Markethouse: small thefts, books, blankets, animals, and more alarmingly a break-in at the house of a local insurance agent. As he and his brother begin to investigate this small accumulation of mysteries, Lenox realizes that something very strange and serious indeed may be happening, more than just local mischief. Soon, he’s racing to solve two cases at once, one in London and one in the country, before either turns deadly. Blending Charles Finch’s trademark wit, elegance, and depth of research, this new mystery, equal parts Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, may be the finest in the series.

Chapter One

It was a blustery London morning in the autumn of 1876, wind and rain heavy in the trees lining Chancery Lane, and here, damn it all, stood before Charles Lenox something that nobody should have to tolerate before breakfast: a beaming Frenchman.

“What is it, Pointilleux?” he asked.

“I have solve the case.”

“Oh?”

“I believe he has never enter the room at all.”

Lenox sighed. “Are those the papers you’re holding? Could I see them?”

“Do you not observe the elegance of it, though! He has never enter the room at all.

Pointilleux handed over the neat pile of newspapers, face expectant, and Lenox, tired and moody, felt an unbecoming glee at being allowed to dash his enthusiasm. “Three people saw him go into his dressing room. And the glass of wine that he always had waiting for him after a concert was drunk up, all but a few drops.”

Pointilleux’s face fell. He was a tall, straight-backed, handsome young person of nineteen, very earnest, with large dark eyes and jet black hair. A late-summer attempt to grow side-whiskers had ended in ignominious defeat; his face was clean-shaven again.

“You are certain?”

“Yes. I had it from the detective inspector himself.”

“This information does not present itself in the newspapers.”

“They’re holding back as much as they can to distinguish false tips from real ones. So you’d better keep mum.”

“Mum.” Pointilleux looked dissatisfied. “I was very sure.”

“Better luck next time,” said Lenox, tiredly. He was past forty-five now, and it took more of the day for him to overcome a late night. “And now you’d better get to your desk—I have a great deal to do, and not much time before my first appointment of is due.”

This was true. His professional life had rarely been better, more gratifying, more full of excitement; nor had it often been more exhausting, more burdened with care, more tedious.

Newby, his appointment, was a country fellow, a prosperous brewer of apple cider in Somerset. He arrived precisely at eight o’clock—but looking much battered, red in the face, with mud spattered three-quarters of the way up his trousers.

“You found your way easily enough?” asked Lenox.

Newby gave him a look of outrage. “I call it a pretty kettle of fish,” he said, settling his great bulk into the chair across Lenox’s desk, “when a fellow in the prime of his life cannot walk down the streets of England’s greatest city without getting trod on by a horse, or knocked about by a woman selling oysters, or pushed over by an omnibus!”

Lenox frowned. “Oh dear.”

“I am accustomed to a pretty hearty traffic in Bristol on market day, too, sir!” he said. “Pretty hearty traffic!”

“That’s very bad,” said Lenox.

“These young women selling oysters ought to be in jail.”

“I can have a word with someone.”

“Would you? I think someone should, honestly.”

It was the usual story—London was a hellish place to walk if you weren’t accustomed to it. There was a famous story about Charlotte and Anne Brontë coming from the country to visit their publisher; they’d stayed at a hotel not two hundred yards from his offices, but their morning walk to reach it had taken them more than an hour, including long periods for which they stood completely still, in something near blind despair, as foot traffic moved around them.

Lenox, used to it all, the children ducking under the heads of horses, the city men whose strides gulped great stretches of pavement, hadn’t had such troubles in many years, but he was happy to spend five further minutes listening to Newby bemoan the impossibility of walking down Holborn Street in broad daylight without being knocked over like a spring flower every thirty seconds, what did they have an empire for at all, and in older days people hadn’t been quite so busy and they had managed very well if you asked him, thank you, and really things had come to a fine pass—and all that kind of thing, the statement of which gradually lulled Newby into a better mood than Lenox had ever seen him in before. It occurred to Lenox that if he instituted the practice of spending the first ten minutes of every meeting listening to their thoughts on the state of the modern world, his clientele would be the most contented in London.

At last, Newby came to his business. “I’m convinced that our distributor in Bath, Jonathan Fotheringham, is skimming money from us.”

“Can you change distributors?”

“He’s our best and only option there, unfortunately.”

Lenox frowned. “What makes you think he’s stealing?”

Newby was provincial, but he was no fool. From his valise he pulled a sheaf of papers, which showed that in each of the last five quarters there had been an incremental decline in the revenue of Fotheringham’s district, while everywhere else there had been a rise in revenue. Lenox asked a variety of questions—Was it possible there was a new competitor? How long had Fotheringham been a reliable partner?—before at last nodding, thoughtfully, and promising to send Atkinson to Bath.

“Is he good?”

“Our top man,” said Lenox, nodding. “He was at Scotland Yard until last year. First person we hired.”

“What about you, or Strickland, or Dallington? The fellows on the nameplate?”

“They’re both on cases, and I’m working primarily in a supervisory capacity nowadays. Believe me, Atkinson is excellent. If I didn’t take this seriously, I would send our new chap, Davidson. He’s promising, but greener than one of your apples.”

Newby seemed satisfied by the answer. He accepted a fortifying glass of sherry, then rose and braced himself to wade back into the midden of London, with a grave final word before he left about the city’s general decline, and what it portended for them all.

These were Lenox’s days now. About ten months before, at the start of the year, he and three other people had started the first detective agency in England. After a difficult beginning, particularly for Lenox, who had spent the better part of the previous decade sitting in Parliament, falling hopelessly out of practice as a criminal investigator, they had made a success of it.

Well—something of a success. One of the partners, the Frenchman LeMaire, had left the firm during its initial wobbles, certain that it would never make a profit, and founded a competing agency of his own. Fortunately, just when LeMaire’s pessimism seemed as if it might have been quite clear-eyed, the three remaining partners had found their feet. In part this was because the other two were superb: Lord John Dallington, an aristocrat of nearly thirty, and Polly Buchanan, an enterprising young widow who worked as “Miss Strickland” and was a specialist in all the small mysteries the middle class produced, stolen silver, vanished fiancées, that sort of thing.

An even greater percentage of their success came from Lenox, who had theretofore been far and away the least productive of them all. The difficulty had been some resistance in him, at first, to treating it as a business—a gentleman by birth, with a private fortune, in his previous life he had been an amateur detective, working from his town house in the West End, taking cases as it pleased him.

When he had finally realized—after those crushing first months, after LeMaire’s departure—that he was actually in trade now, his attitude had changed. With systematic determination, he had set out with a new idea: that he would win clients from the City, the business world. Using all of his many contacts from Parliament and the social sphere in which he and his wife, Lady Jane, moved, he had amassed some two dozen regulars just like Newby, who kept Lenox, Strickland, and Dallington on retainer. They were the agency’s prizes, their names and files kept in a small gray safe, secure from the snooping eyes of anyone who might be willing to offer them to LeMaire. The firm regularly checked in on each of these clients, and also remained on call should anything unusual occur—a work stoppage, the theft of materials or money, bookkeeping discrepancies. Lenox and his colleagues prided themselves on handling such issues much more quickly and adeptly than Scotland Yard could. That speed and discretion was where they made their fees worthwhile.

The triumph of this strategy—the agency had had to hire four additional detectives now, and several more clerks—had come at some cost to Lenox. It was the beginning of October now, and he hadn’t personally handled a case since July. Instead he spent a great deal of his time managing men like Newby and delegating their problems to the firm’s active detectives, Atkinson, Weld, Mayhew, and now Davidson. Polly had her small but lucrative cases to handle—“Miss Strickland” continued to advertise in the papers—and Dallington his own idiosyncratic custom, much of it criminal, which came in part from the close work with the Yard that Lenox had handed down to him upon taking up his political career.

And in fact, that was precisely the kind of work that he had returned to this field to do. He loved above all the pursuit, the infinitesimally small details upon which a murder investigation might turn, the dirt in a shirt cuff, the abrasion on a windowsill, the missing ten pounds. Well; he would return to it, in time. At the very least, dealing with Newby was vastly, incomparably better than the dismal state of affairs he had experienced from January through the spring, when he had had no clients, had contributed nothing, had been a positive millstone around his partners’ necks.

Shouldn’t he be appreciative for that?

Yes, he thought, with resolve—and for the rest of the morning he handled the business with great good cheer, just as he had past midnight the evening before, putting his signature to papers, assigning work to the clerks and detectives, making time for a rapid and humorous cup of tea with Dallington, and glancing in his free moments at the account book, which was pleasingly crosshatched and filled in and prosperous-looking.

By noon, therefore, he was in an excellent mood. “Pointilleux!” he called out.

The young Frenchman appeared, one hand on the doorway, head popping around it. “Yes?”

“Are you still investigating that break-in in Bayswater? The butcher’s shop?”

Pointilleux nodded and stepped into the office. He was actually LeMaire’s nephew—had stayed behind after his uncle left, a serious, pleasant presence, very young, and beloved by them all, only in part because he’d kept faith in their project. Though he was barely nineteen, they assigned him some of their smaller cases, as part of an agreement they had made to train him. “I am come to suspect the wife very strongly. She has conduct an affair of the heart with the constable.”

“Then take the afternoon off,” said Lenox.

Pointilleux’s face opened into a beam. “Ah!” he said. “Excellent! I will!”

Lenox, pleased at having atoned for his previous irritability, bade the young man good-bye and then turned his eyes to his own appointment book. What was next? He knew there was a meeting with Carter later that afternoon, an important client who owned a cloth wholesaler in Lambeth. But was his lunch hour spoken for?

And then Lenox’s own face fell, his heart with it. All the vim he felt from having achieved so much on a Monday morning vanished.

He was engaged to have lunch with his brother, Edmund, he remembered now; in fact, he had to leave soon, if he was going to get to the restaurant on time. With a sigh, he rose and fetched his hat from its stand, dreading how difficult it had become to see one of the three people in all the world that he cared about the most.

 

Copyright © 2015 Charles Finch, James Langton.

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Charles Finch is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal's Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. His first contemporary novel, The Last Enchantments, was published in 2015. He lives in Chicago.

Comments

  1. Jane Schwarz

    I really like the Charles Lenox mysteries. Started at the beginning so I could get a feel of how things change, not only in his life but the times around him. Thanks for this wonderful series.

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