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Review: The Last Passenger, by Charles Finch
Minotaur, 2020. 292 pp. $28

London, 1855. When a plodding, dissolute Scotland Yard inspector asks Charles Lenox for help solving a murder at Paddington Station, that request puts Lenox in a difficult position with most of the force. First of all, Charles is an amateur; secondly, unlike any police inspector, he’s of gentle birth (the second son of a baronet); and thirdly, he has a way of turning up evidence and making deductions that arouses envy. But this particular case offers no clues to be envious about. The dead man carries no means of identification — no wallet, papers, or belongings — and the murderer removed all the labels in the victim’s clothes.

What’s more, the investigation reaches frequent impasses, because “no — and furthermore” has taken up residence here. You never have the feeling that justice is inexorable, which adds to the tension, and what strikes you most isn’t Lenox’s skill but his eagerness to learn. That quality separates him from some (though not all) duly sanctioned officers of the law.

Since The Last Passenger is the thirteenth entry in the Charles Lenox series, the third of a prequel trilogy portraying how he began his career, I didn’t know I’d wind up reviewing it until I realized, within the first few chapters, how it stood out for me from its siblings. The mystery is extremely clever, and the prose graceful, but with Finch, those are givens. Rather, what appeals to me most about The Last Passenger is how the narrative probes more deeply into Charles’s character and moral and political beliefs than any other installment I’ve read.

To many men of his social station, he’s betrayed his class, and they cut him accordingly, which hurts. That has happened before, but here, he aches more from it. Further, he fears his mother disapproves as well, which carries extra weight, and she’s his sole surviving parent. Nor does his loneliness end there. Still a bachelor at age twenty-seven, and having extinguished his torch for his childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Lady Jane Grey (now, there’s a name from Tudor history!), he finds that Lady Jane and his mother keep putting eligible young women in his way. At first, he wishes they didn’t, but when one young woman in particular smiles upon him, he wonders about that thing called love.

I don’t remember another Lenox novel in which our hero pays so much attention to the disparity of wealth that the metropolis displays, and of which he’s an example. Nor has he before now recognized racial prejudice, in himself or anyone else, or considered deeply the institution of American slavery that has aroused protest in England as the story opens. (Echoes of current issues, perhaps?) Finally, as regular readers of Finch’s series know, the author delights in peppering his narratives with arcane facts, of which this one offers a more than usual portion. Among other bits, you learn what the British railway had in common with ancient Roman chariot tracks; why, in prior centuries to the nineteenth, no respectable lady wore green; the derivation of the word nickname; and how the phrases mind your P’s and Q’s and cold turkey entered the language.

As always, Finch gives you the Victorian Age, in large and small, as with this brief description of the era’s inimitable decorating style, which Charles can’t stand:

. . . a sort of prodigious clutter, walls and tables crowded past elegance, every piece of cloth in the room double-or triple-embroidered, remnants of statuary, wretchedly heavy silver platters and ewers, big dark clocks, etchings of colossal ruins. The spare black-and-ivory elegance of Lenox’s childhood was gone now — submerged beneath a rockslide of things, objects.

Also noteworthy is how Finch takes care to show his detective’s mistakes, and not only because Lenox is learning his craft. Unlike Holmes, say, Lenox never carries the whiff of infallibility, so he’s that much more human. And in The Last Passenger, you see his maturation in more than one way, which is very satisfying. This is not just another mystery, or even just another Lenox mystery, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, though I did not review it there.