It's nice to take an occasional break from serial killers, sexy vampires, somber Scandanavians, and rampant crime on the streets of (fill in the name of your city here). Charles Finch has written a charming and intelligent mystery series, of which The Fleet Street Murders is the third. Set in 1860s England, Finch effortlessly evokes a tone fitting the Victorian times, and that is a large part of his charm.
Charles Lenox is the younger son in an upper class family. Not excited to enter either rectory or regiment, the traditional venues for disenfranchised younger sons, Charles has become a private detective. This lower class undertaking would be more of a family disgrace except that Charles' older brother, Edmund, a staid and responsible member of Parliament, can't wait to assist him, and Charles' reputation and success rate is nonpareil. To further lend respectability, Charles is newly engaged to the lovely, wealthy, and (last, but not least) intelligent Lady Jane Grey. Along with Graham, Charles' worthy valet, and various high- and low-born assistants, Charles seeks to rectify nefarious deeds and dastardly doings.
Finch's gentle tone doesn't mask the critical look he takes of Great Britain's class system and its law-making apparatus, but he doesn't bludgeon us with a contemporary sensibility of these issues. For example, Graham is Charles' friend and assistant investigator, but he is Charles' servant first and foremost.
Although Charles' life is already full of his private investigations, upper-crust socializing, and wedding plans, Charles has always harbored a desire to be a member of Parliament. With the help of Liberal party connections, he runs for a seat representing an area of England that he has never seen, apparently not an uncommon occurrence. Charles must travel from his home in London to meet and greet the inhabitants of the rural community of Stirrington and convince them he would be a better candidate than his opponent, who was born and bred in the area. Through Charles we meet the "ordinary" folk of the time: farmers, bartenders, grain merchants, and assorted village odd ducks. Charles is illuminated and humbled by his travels.
So, where's the murder, you ask? It seems almost incidental after we have become so immersed in the story of the political campaign. Back in London, two journalists have been murdered. One is a respectable member of the newspaper establishment and the other is suspected of obliging and furthering the cause of the criminal element of London. Charles investigates between political engagements, but both politics and the investigation suffer as a result. Lady Jane, too, adds to the chaos by requesting a delay in their marriage plans. Egad! When an acquaintance of Charles is attacked, perhaps in conjunction with the murders, the mystery takes a personal turn.
To give us this tale, Finch never slips into farce or parody. He neither lectures nor hectors. This book, gentle reader, is very entertaining and comforting. At the end of the day, there's a cozy fire, a hot cup of tea, and friends and family to carry our hero through.