Review: The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch

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).

This is a really great jumping-on point for readers new to the Charles Lenox series, as it details our hero’s first murder case and its consequences. At the callow age of 23, Charles Lenox, the younger son of a landed earl, has defied the Victorian convention that demands he chooses from one of the few professions deemed acceptable by his class in those times: politics, the military, or the clergy. Instead, and rather scandalously, he has chosen to be a consulting detective, with the aid of his indispensable valet, Graham.

Unfortunately, he has few cases to occupy his time. His peers consider him a novelty at best, and the detectives of Scotland Yard openly mock him when they’re not being outright hostile. But Lenox and Graham’s daily habit of going through London’s newspapers for reports and signs of criminal activity leads them to a letter to the editor of The Challenger boasting of a perfect murder and hinting at more to come.

After Lenox inquires at The Challenger, he combs through his personal collection of clipped articles and concludes that he needs to bring this to the attention of Scotland Yard itself. The body of a young woman was found stuffed into a steamer trunk nearly a month ago on Walnut Island. No one came forward to identify her, and the case threatens to go unsolved until Lenox suspects that this was the death the mysterious letter-writer boasted of.

The men of Scotland Yard greet his theory with their own healthy skepticism, so Lenox and Graham are forced to take matters into their own hands, patrolling the nearby banks of the river for the promised follow-up. But two men are incapable of guarding an entire city, and when another body turns up in a similar manner, Lenox and Graham are vindicated in the worst way possible. To add to Lenox’s mortification, he is then put on Scotland Yard’s payroll—something no gentleman would ever countenance. But more than his pride is put to the test when the investigation produces more deaths than he can prevent, no matter how hard he tries:

He didn’t trust himself to say more. Instead he simmered in his emotions, angry as only the young can be, who still suspect the world to be partially within their control; as only the purehearted can be, to whom evil is a new surprise each time; angry with himself; angry with the indifferent cloudy morning sky; angry with the indifferent passersby, involved so earnestly in their meaningless daily movements.

It isn’t just the frustration of trying to stop a ruthless murderer that has Lenox in a state. He has just come to realize that he’s in love with his best friend, who is newly wed to someone else; he hadn’t really considered her an equal at her tender age of 19 until it was too late for him to woo her. Then, he receives devastating news that threatens to upend his young world, resulting in some of the most luminous prose of the book as he seeks to make memories with a loved one while they still can:

The next three days passed in a lovely flash, like one of those vivid countryside strokes of lightning that stays illuminated an unnaturally long while, more than a second, a second and a half, which feels an eternity even though it’s still gone before you’ve begun to see it.

The Woman in the Water is a gorgeous, heartfelt look at a young man on the verge of claiming his adulthood, with all its griefs and responsibilities. I wasn’t sure, at first, how sympathetic I would be to a rich young man’s frustrations at not being taken seriously—if that’s the worst of his problems, then he barely has any problems at all—but Charles Finch writes beautifully of Lenox’s interior life, even as he builds a compelling murder mystery in Victorian London. The methods of policing at the time are both fascinating and shocking, and I greatly enjoyed how convincingly Mr. Finch used the setting to tell this affecting coming-of-age tale.

Read an excerpt from The Woman in the Water!

 

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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.

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