Murder in the Mist (A Gaslight Mystery, 5)
At Christmas in 1859, Charles Dickens’ country home of Gad’s Hill is full to bursting. Dickens, his wife and ten children, plus friends, colleagues, and writers including Wilkie Collins, are gathered in celebration. The strangers in this cosy camaraderie are Timmy O’Connor, an unpleasant man Dickens met in Cork, and his nephews, all of whom seem thoroughly cowed by their uncle. Wilkie senses immediately that something is amiss, and his dear friend, Georgina, a young heiress now deprived of beautiful accoutrements by the fact that she has frittered away her fortune and gone borrowing, apprises Wilkie of the real O’Connor. Behind the façade of the generous uncle―bequeathed his brother’s money with the empty promise that he would take care of his four orphaned nephews―is an unscrupulous moneylender who will stop at nothing to root out secrets with the express purpose of blackmailing his clients and wallowing in their misery. His sudden death near Cooling Churchyard isn’t of particular concern to anyone. The suspect list is long, including convicts from a prison ship, most of Dickens’ guests, his staff, and Georgina herself.
While Victorian life is beautifully drawn here, and interesting facts about usury, prison ships, and protagonists Dickens and Collins abound, I found this whodunnit slow going. It feels repetitive and flat, and the writing didn’t fit my expectation, having read many highly enjoyable Burren and Reverend Mother mysteries by the author. The identity of the murderer isn’t immediately obvious, but Wilkie’s plodding thought processes do little to propel the plot forward, and Dickens shows more interest in parlour games and carol-singing than a possible murderer under his roof. Of most interest is Dickens’ musing about the man who would become Abel Magwitch. This is the fifth in the Dickens and Collins Gaslight Mystery series.