Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Death in the Small Hours by Charles Finch (A Charles Lenox mystery)

Though some might say the book should end once the mystery is solved, I for one was happily relieved to witness several key events that serve as subplots in A Death in the Small Hours, Charles Finch’s sixth installment of his wonderful Charles Lenox mysteries.

The deft and artful way in which Finch drops the reader into a pleasant or interesting situation makes one feel a bit like they are strolling in an impressionist painting. The setting is slightly idealized (though still well-researched), with an emphasis on beauty and mood. He writes with a painter’s sense of hue, including just enough to detail to throw the entire image into sharp relief. (I suspect this is especially true for readers such as myself who have not had the fortune to actually travel to England, despite spending thousands of literary hours there, both in the past and present.)

For example, much of this book takes place at Everley, where Lenox’s uncle (technically cousin, but that’s not really the relationship the two have) tends beautiful surrounding gardens and sits as magistrate and de facto squire to the village of Plumbley. As the Lenox family rides up to the estate, a place of many happy memories for Charles, we are told that Everley is “had none of the grandeur of a palace, or of the great medieval castles—it was only two stories—yet it had a beauty all its own” (p. 35, 2012 Minotaur Books U.S. paperback).

The subsequent description has just enough detail to make it a firm setting in the reader’s mind– we are told of an old wing built in 1220 and a “more recent” Queen Anne-period hall, of a pond and “small gardens with gravel paths, not grand but perfect in their beauty” (Ibid.)

Yet the description simultaneously lacks just enough detail to allow Everley to become a place of the reader’s imagination – in my opinion, best balance a writer can strike.
But that is nothing new from Finch. He has remained remarkable in his ability to create atmosphere and strike a consistent tone without getting stagnant. Indeed, this book installment contains quite a few plot twists, one of which was totally unexpected. And, for those who enjoy just a bit more action and derring-do, you’ll find this installment has plenty of both.

Still, it is still almost what I would call a cozy, though there is some physical action and, of course, a tragic and senseless murder. The murder comes on the heels of vandalism that has recently been occurring in Pemberley. At first, Lenox believes them to be the antics of restless schoolboys but the cryptic, sinister messages that accompany the destruction preclude school boy antics. Naturally, the murder draws both Lenox and the reader into the main plot, even though poor Lenox initially goes to the country to complete a career-making Parliamentary task.

If there can be said to be a major flaw with this installment, it is that perhaps Finch is too enamored with his own characters. But, who can blame him? They’re wonderful. But then again, that’s a bit of the rub, too. One wants to gets to know them more but Finch, and by extension Lenox, who are nothing if not gentlemen, retain a respectful distance that keeps some of the more minor characters at bit at arm’s length. But perhaps I’m just a pushy, nosy American.

All in all, while I wouldn’t call this the best installment of the series, I would say it’s a solid entry into what continues to be a great series. This is a relief given certain major character developments that had me worried the series would inevitably devolve into something else. But existing fans will enjoy it, I’m sure, and those who are new to the series will find it a perfectly good introduction to most of the main characters. 

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