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Review: The Inheritance, by Charles Finch
St. Martin’s, 2016. 294 pp. $26

Charles Lenox, a partner in a thriving London detective agency in the late 1870s, receives a vague plea for help from Gerald Leigh, a friend he’s barely seen since their schoolboy days at Harrow. When Charles looks into the matter, he learns that Gerald has disappeared — and what’s more, may be marked for murder because he’s just come into a sizable, unexpected inheritance.

As a latecomer to the Charles Lenox series, I’m delighted to recommend The Inheritance, not only for itself but as a refreshing change from many mysteries published these days, historical or otherwise. Instead of a sullen, troubled misfit for a sleuth, which has perhaps become a cliché, Finch offers a warm, sensitive protagonist in Charles Lenox, devoted to his wife and their young daughter. Where the typical “amateur” struggles with a grudging Scotland Yard, a conflict that goes back to Conan Doyle, Charles works in concert with the Yard and befriends its officers. (Note that the story takes place before Sherlock Holmes would have hung out his shingle.)

A former member of Parliament, Lenox belongs to the ruling class, and he married an aristocratic wife, yet he chafes at the government’s slowness to enact reforms for the general good. Where the vast majority of Victorian gentlemen would take superiority over women for granted, Charles freely acknowledges that one of his partners, Polly Buchanan, is both a better detective and a more effective executive than he.

A drawing of Burlington House, the London home of the Royal Society, from the Illustrated London News, 1873 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

In fact, this paragon has no discernible faults, unless you count complete boredom at the notion of germ theory, a controversial scientific issue of the day (and one that figures in the mystery). Yet the milk of human kindness makes a winning, comforting drink, even in a tale about greed and murder, and though the ending may be too tidy, how Finch narrates his story adds nuance.

Firstly, nothing ever goes as expected, and I don’t mean just the essential “no — and furthermore” to disappoint Lenox’s hopes. Rather, the narrative presents a stream of surprises, many for the reader, not the protagonist. For example, early on, Charles returns home from an investigation through the snow-bound streets to find “a young woman in a slim gray coat” waiting at his door. A relation? A client? A lover? No; it’s Polly, and you soon find out she runs the show.

Secondly, Finch takes care to give his character strong inner lives. The story of Charles’s unusual friendship with Gerald at Harrow takes up a good portion of the book, yet it doesn’t feel like a discursion or a distraction, and Finch deftly connects it to the main story and uses it to show how Lenox first became interested in detection. That’s a major part of the author’s approach, to explore his characters’ dreams outside the present moment. I also like the way he reveals the depth of feelings, trying to make them specific and concrete, rather than telling you in an abstract phrase:

He would never forget sitting alone in the duke’s grand music room that afternoon. There had been a hundred evenings of amusement and celebration here. Now it was as desolate as an empty ocean, the light going iron gray as the sun faded, the carefully situated picture frames and sofas and silver bowls each reproached by their own frivolity. It was intensely sad. In Lenox’s mind was the business of the next day. The terrible black-edged paper would have to be bought; the terrible black-edged envelopes; the terrible black wax, to seal the news in forever…

Which brings up the question of prose. It’s exuberant without affectation, the dialogue feels natural, and wit punctuates the narrative: “Lenox was rarely in such an acid mood, and Kirk [the butler] inclined his head deferentially to the celebrity of the moment.”

On top of all that, Finch manages to convey the era from the inside, something that many historical mysteries stint on. This novel, however, brings you into the Royal Society, and the fascination with science that hints at why the Victorian Age produced so many discoveries and innovations. As a bonus, you get explanations of words or traditions, such as why the British drive on the left, and Americans, the right. (Hint: It has to do with knights in the first instance, and wagons in the second.)

There are many grittier mysteries around, in which people are naturally vicious, and some of these novels are brilliant. Perhaps The Inheritance goes too far to the other extreme. Yet it remains very appealing, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.