Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Beautiful Blue Death (trade, $13.95), by Charles Finch

There's a comforting, sitting-by-the-fireside-with-a-good-cup-of-tea feeling that reading this book might give the reader. As a matter of fact, the main character, Charles Lenox, does a lot of sitting by the fireside while he sips his restorative cup of tea. I'd use the word "cuppa," but the story is also about the delineation of Victorian class lines, and Lenox would no more use that word than he would sit companionably with his butler, no matter how faithful, brave, and ingenious he may be. Oh, wait, he does sit companionably with his butler, although the reader senses that the faithful, brave, and ingenious Graham is sitting gingerly on the edge of his chair, back straight, and with the proper note of deference still in his tone. And Lenox still wouldn't say "cuppa."

Although financially and emotionally comfortable, Lenox is the second son in his family and, thus, did not inherit the family estate, but neither is he required to shoulder the family's obligations, e.g., sitting in Parliament. Lenox must make his own way in the world and chooses to become a private detective. He is ably assisted by his butler; his neighbor and childhood friend, Lady Jane, sophisticated widow-about-town; and his older brother, Edmund, who is eager to share the adventure of investigation.

My favorite character is the conflicted Edmund. On the one hand he apparently is one of the guiding lights of his age, but he is also the gawky, eager amateur dying to help his little brother with his exciting cases.

Lady Jane is upset because a former maid has died after moving to her new situation. Scotland Yard is not yet the formidable and principled organization that we have come to know and love through authors like P.D. James, so Lady Jane asks Lenox to look into it. Lenox has the cachet of his family name to open doors and give him access to (almost) everywhere, not to mention membership in an impressive number of clubs. Inevitably, the story works its way to another murder and a larger, complicating issue.

Finch has created a cozy story of an impossibly genteel time. Most of the time I enjoyed the leisurely pace with which Lenox moves through his life, time enough to drink tea, take naps, choose the proper cravat, and politely corner a murderer. However, I often felt the aristocratic characters were much too polite, even when they were being dismissive. Even Agatha Christie, grand dame of the British cozy puzzler, put some sass in her melodrama. Crime shouldn't be played by the rules, eh, wot?

Finch attempts to show that the tragedy of classism works both ways, that as hard as it is to cry a river for an upper crust Victorian, the need to remain upstairs, rather than downstairs, is a mighty powerful and human motive.

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