An Extravagant Death (Charles Lenox Mysteries, 14)

Written by Charles Finch
Review by Larry Zuckerman

In 1878, Charles Lenox, the most famous detective in Britain, travels to America at the prime minister’s personal request. On the train from New York to Boston, the bodyguard of William Stuyvesant Schermerhorn IV importunes Charles to travel immediately to Newport, Rhode Island, where a nineteen-year-old debutante has been murdered. Against his better judgment, Charles agrees to investigate.

Turns out that the dead woman had two serious suitors, including Schermerhorn’s son, and first impressions lead Charles to suspect both young men. But the quick solution crumbles under scrutiny, and the mystery develops with many reversals. So far, so good, but the ending bothers me; the surprise resolution devolves into psychological territory I usually think of as a copout, though Finch’s nuanced approach almost makes up for it.

The real treat, however, is the social commentary. Even Charles, younger brother to a baronet and former member of Parliament, can’t fathom the opulence on display, the class system based on money, or square either with the way most Americans live. How an English gentleman navigates the social and cultural cues is worth the price of admission in itself. I admire the authority with which Finch moves about the world of power and social position, whether we’re talking about a meeting with Benjamin Disraeli or a Caroline Astor soirée. And if you’ve ever wondered how such idioms as backlog, grapevine, or white elephant entered the language, or what a folded-down corner of calling card signified, wonder no more. As with its predecessors, this Lenox novel explores an overlooked aspect of the detective’s life, in this case, fatherhood. I like those sections, few as they are, very much.

Though I find this entry less pleasing than some others in the series, even a less-than-stellar Lenox tale is very good indeed and worth your time.