Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Burial at Sea by Charles Finch (A Charles Lenox mystery)

One of the few things better than a mystery set during the cold, foggy nights of Victorian London is a mystery that takes place on a ship of the Royal Navy during the same era.

Something about the creaking wood and restless canting of an old ship, or the glory of a full sail clip into a rising sun and saltwater spray, simply begs for intrigue, murder and (one can only hope) mutiny. After all, there's nowhere for suspects to escape to except Davy Jones' locker, adding a wonderful tension to even mundane interactions.

Charles Finch, like other British mystery authors before him*, answers a call to the water in A Burial At Sea, the fifth installment of the Charles Lenox mysteries. It does not disappoint. 

The confinement of a ship at sea gives nautical mysteries a classic, drawing-room whodunnit feel but that framework is only as good as the writer working within it. Without believable, unique characters even the most well-established ship and setting will sink into flat, two-dimensional stereotypes of men at sea. 

Fortunately, Charles Finch does not run into this problem at all. The characters, of which there are quite a few, are easy to keep track of because they each have a unique voice. And, there's the subplot of Lenox's diplomatic mission as well, which finishes the book nicely. 

Briefly, Charles Lenox is sent on a diplomatic mission to France, one that puts him aboard the H.M.S. Lucy. It is nearly impossible to say more and still uphold my promise to never re-write a plot or give spoilers, but suffice it say that all the key ingredients -- secrets, jealousies, rivalries, friendships sealed with saltwater, etc. -- are all present and accounted for, but twisted just enough to keep from being predictable.

I've written before about Finch's ability to use the theme of class disparity deftly as both a plot device and for character development, but Lenox at sea is in an especially fascinating position. On the one hand, Lenox still a gentleman and passenger. Yet, at least while at sea, whatever his standing on land the captain, out of pure necessity, outranks Lenox at sea. There is a convincing scene during which ballast has to be explained to Lenox and the sailor is so shocked that one might not know this he forgets to call Lenox "sir." Lenox, naturally, does not note or point this out (honestly, where have impeccable manners like Lenox's gone? Sigh.). The new hierarchy dynamic is intriguing and adds a new dimension to the social stratification prevalent in the previous novels.

The main strength in this installment, however, is the characters aboard the ship, one of whom happens to be Lenox's nephew (Finch writes young men very well, incidentally). 

And, as ever, Finch weaves historical fact into his fictitious story with the deft skill of a sailmaker. The long-term plot arc proceeds apace (sorry, no spoilers here!) and Lenox eventually returns to land...and duties that may take him farther away from his sleuthing.

Whether Lenox can survive swallowing a few red herrings while attempting to keep alive  is more than enough intrigue to keep the pages turning.
See: Bruce Alexander's Watery Grave, an installment in the Sir John Fielding mystery series, for another wonderful mystery aboard a Royal Navy ship, set during the Georgian period. 

No comments:

Post a Comment