1878, Benjamin Disraeli, book review, Caroline Astor, Charles Finch, Charles Lenox series, cultural clues, Four Hundred, historical fiction, London, mystery, New York, Newport, nineteenth century, social class, Vanderbilt
Review: An Extravagant Death, by Charles Finch
Minotaur, 2021. 304 pp. $28
London, 1878. For political reasons, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli asks the most famous detective in Britain, Charles Lenox, to leave the country for a few weeks. But Charles would rather refuse, for his wife has just given birth to their second daughter, and his work has taken him away from home too often. However, he’s always dreamed of travel, and Disraeli is nothing if not persuasive. With his family’s blessing, Charles sets sail.
New York captures his fancy, but it’s on a train to Boston that an importunate, extremely wealthy man named Schermerhorn, of old Knickerbocker lineage, has sent an equally importunate bodyguard to request Charles’s presence in Newport, Rhode Island. A murder has taken place, and Schermerhorn requires his help; Lenox may name his price.
You need not have read any of the prior thirteen installments in the Lenox series to understand that such a peremptory request — delivered at an unscheduled stop on the train, arranged by Schermerhorn — would irritate any English gentleman of breeding. Charles, though liberal-minded about many aspects of life, might have turned away on principle, except that the brightest spot in his trip so far has been Teddy Blaine, a young, would-be detective who’s followed Charles’s cases with keen interest and an even keener mind. Teddy pleads with Lenox to ignore Schermerhorn’s manner and look into the case.
So Charles investigates the death of a beautiful, nineteen-year-old debutante, Lily Allingham, who took a fatal blow to the head. Lily had many suitors, but the two most serious were Schermerhorn’s son and his rival, a Vanderbilt, if you please. Given the immediate circumstances Charles observes in Newport, such as the timing of the death, position of the body, and so forth, he suspects both young men.
Naturally there are lies, other suspects, and inconvenient facts that cloud the picture. But, as with all Lenox novels, Finch has social commentary in mind as well as mystery, and he has a field day here. Even a moderately wealthy English aristocrat can’t fathom the opulence on display in Newport, or square it with the way most people live. For instance, he hears of the “cottages” that front the ocean along a cliff, only to discover that they are thirty-bedroom mansions, decorated with English treasures sold by impecunious dukes.
When he enters Schermerhorn’s “cottage,” he finds it
plain by the palatial standards of this town, but sturdy down to its last nail. The floors of the broad, airy hallways never once creaked; the alabaster walls, hung with portraits of sober old New Yorkers of a different epoch, seemed to whisper a quiet word of demonstration against all things modern, all things adorned, anything but plain wood and white paint.
Yet the plainness is a sham; witness the hundreds of servants on staff, from gardeners to kitchen maids, who make the house run — a summer house, be it known. It’s this world within a world that Lenox must navigate, and though Teddy Blaine helps him (coming from a wealthy family himself), many social or cultural cues go over his head.
For the most part, I like the mystery, cleverly conceived, with plenty of “no — and furthermore,” though I find the political reasons for Charles’s departure from America a bit contrived. More significantly, the surprise resolution devolves into psychological territory I usually think of as a copout, though I will say that Finch comes close to making up for it with a nuanced approach. I can’t recall another Lenox novel with even the whiff of copout, and I’ve read at least a half-dozen.
An Extravagant Death offers many pleasures, however, especially the social scenes, all rendered with authority, whether a meeting with Disraeli or a Caroline Astor soirée, complete in fascinating detail. Regular Lenox readers will wonder, in the first third or so of the book, what happened to the quaint facts that Finch loves to explain; never fear, they’ll come in time. If you’ve ever wondered how such idioms as backlog, grapevine, or white elephant entered the language, or what a calling card with one corner folded down signified, wonder no more. Equally characteristic of the series, each book explores a different, relatively untouched aspect of Charles’s life, in this case, fatherhood. The narrative doesn’t dwell long on this subject, but I like what appears very much, and these scenes also give an idea of how an upper-classic Victorian family viewed children.
Overall, I’d judge An Extravagant Death of lesser note than a couple others in the series, including the previous volume, The Last Passenger. But even a less-than-stellar Lenox tale is very good and well worth your time.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work with Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.