The Vanishing Man: A Prequel to the Charles Lenox Series (Charles Lenox Mysteries)

Written by Charles Finch
Review by Sarah Johnson

In this second in a prequel trilogy to the Charles Lenox detective series (after The Woman in the Water), our protagonist, aged twenty-six, has had some success but struggles to be taken seriously as a private investigator—by his social circle and Scotland Yard, both. It’s June 1853, and Lenox knows solving a case for the Duke of Dorset could make his career. His Grace wants Lenox to discover who stole a painting of his great-grandfather, the 14th duke, one in a series of portraits in his private study. Oddly, as the duke confides, the portrait alongside the missing one is the real treasure: it’s an oil painting of Shakespeare, done from life. Maybe the thief got it wrong. Getting entangled in the duke’s business leads to social disgrace—high-ranking noblemen are temperamental—and, eventually, to a much more serious case involving murder.

There’s something comforting about stepping into the viewpoint of a cultured Victorian gentleman who observes social niceties and feels a deep sense of integrity. If these values come into conflict, Lenox’s personal honor and justice regularly prevail. To hone his craft, Lenox becomes a student of life, visiting Bedlam to understand the criminal mind, and enlisting the help of an old sailor (a terrific character) with an aptitude for finding things. His dedication is admirable, since many of his peers look down on his pursuit of a vocation in “trade.” The novel is simultaneously a rich evocation of the Victorian class structure and a trenchant critique of it.

Historical crime novels with Shakespearean themes are hardly uncommon, and though the plot turns madcap in places, there’s enough novelty about this case to keep Lenox and readers on their toes. Amidst everything else going on, Lenox’s young cousin Lancelot is staying with him; while he’s an annoying little brat, some of his actions are comedy gold.