A Stranger in Mayfair
Nero and Agatha Award nominee Charles Finch’s fourth installment in the Charles Lenox series, following THE FLEET STREET MURDERS, is set in London’s tony Mayfair section near Hyde Park, as the American Civil War draws to a close. Amateur sleuth Lenox returns from a summer-long continental honeymoon with his bride, Lady Jane Grey. As a wedding gift, Lenox buys his wife a painting, “the blurry one [by a] chap named Monet. Rhymes with bonnet, I think. I never heard of him myself.”
The tour of the Continent draws to a close too soon for the newlyweds, as Lenox has been elected as a Member of Parliament, where his brother Edmund also serves. Their parliamentary colleague, Ludovic Starling, asks Lenox to look into the apparent murder of his teenaged footman, Frederick Clarke, though venerable Scotland Yard has taken charge. “Mayfair seemed somehow more civilized. It certainly wasn’t a quarter of London that Lenox associated with murder.” But there’s a seedy side to Mayfair, where Clarke and Starling hid secret lives.
As Lenox’s investigation with his apprentice, John Dallington, immediately identifies the murder weapon as a pavement brick, Starling insists: “Shall we just let the Yard handle it?” He hints that he is to receive a title from Queen Victoria, “a roundish, placid, unbeautiful woman.” Disturbing issues Lenox discovers about the Starling family that Clarke served cultivate curiosity: “Starling’s behavior was odd. Why ask Lenox onto the case and then try to kick him off? The title?”
“The butler did it!” Long-time servant Jack Collingwood lays claim to the homicide, lying to protect one of the Starlings’ “quintessentially English” household. But which one? Starling himself? One of his sons? Or perhaps one of the many servants? The investigation is sped along by old Uncle Tiberius, who discloses that Starling’s son Paul has not left for Africa, as suggested by Lady Elizabeth Starling, “that devil woman.”
“True, visceral terror gripped at Lenox’s heart,” as he confronts the presumed murderer. Grim secrets reside at the Starling mansion and hide from Lenox, but “[t]he truth wants to come out.” When it does, those Lenox least suspect had been in his midst all the while. The culprit is “a character that was dreadful and dark, capable of evil things.”
All the makings of a modern mystery are wrapped up in a Victorian theme. This is really two novels: one of intrigue, the other of a richly written detail of life in London as it was 15 decades ago. So grab a spot of tea and enjoy both.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy (www.DeanMurphy.net) on January 5, 2011