"A Burial at Sea" by Charles Finch: Book Review


"A Burial at Sea" by Charles Finch
Minotaur, 310 pp., $24.99
Reviewed by David Marshall James


This fifth Victorian-era Sir Charles Lenox mystery casts him into a ship-shape story, a true-blue adventure in which he sets sail from Plymouth aboard the HMS Lucy, across the Mediterranean to Port Said, Egypt.

Ostensibly, Member of Parliament Lenox is representing England's economic interests in the Suez Canal. Below deck, as it were, he's clandestinely meeting with a highly-placed Frenchman in order to receive secret intelligence concerning the recent deaths of British spies in France.

However, Lenox is scarcely out to sea before one of the ship's lieutenants is knifed and mutilated, upon which Lenox is summoned by the captain to discover the murderer.

Not that he's been doing much detecting as of late, since he has married childhood friend Lady Jane Grey.

Wedded bliss and Parliamentary affairs having occupied and otherwise prevented him from pursuing his avocation (Lenox, being well-heeled, detects pro bono), Sir Charles fears his skills have become as rusty as an anchor from the Spanish Armada.

Not to worry, sir-- you may have left your Man Friday, Graham, to hold down the fort in London, but you've got a jolly Scottish steward, McEwan, onboard the Lucy.

McEwan and all the "Lucy's" (the ship's seamen) are smartly fashioned by author Charles Finch.

Surely to goodness McEwan will pop up in later volumes. He's too fine a character to cast by the wayside.

All the important elements herein shine like an officer's brass buttons in what may well be the author's best Lenox novel thus far.

Indeed, having recently revisited Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson in a new edition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short fiction, it's fair to say that this mystery is in a league with those tales.

One caveat before closing: The Victorian sentimentality, authentic enough, wrought up by Sir Charles's marriage to Lady Jane should be as well controlled in future volumes as it is here.

Readers won't enjoy the inevitable conflicts that will occur in that union should Charles actively seek out detective work.

So, best to place him in such a situation away from his wife, as here, or best to have Jane abroad from London, should Charles's case turn up there.

Or, taking a cue from Conan Doyle, Finch may wish to focus on some of Lenox's past cases. Readers would like to learn more about the origin and evolution of Sir Charles's interest in detection.

* * *