Fiction readers who crush on blue-blooded British detectives will fall hard for Victorian-era sleuth Charles Lenox, if they haven’t already. Lenox first appeared in Charles Finch’s well received 2007 novel “A Beautiful Blue Death.” Lenox’s exploits, laid out in 10 subsequent novels, now share shelf space with other aristocratic crime solvers — Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Elizabeth George’s Inspector Thomas Lynley, and Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear’s private detective who was widow of a viscount. Like these other royal relations, Lenox is independently wealthy and has answered a higher calling to ferret out justice for his fellow citizens.
The latest Lenox novel, “The Vanishing Man,” is the second in a series of prequels that offer delicious details into Lenox’s early years honing his observational and deductive skills as a private investigator. “The Vanishing Man” takes place in 1853, and Lenox, a passionate, still inexperienced 26-year-old, has as yet solved only a few cases for Scotland Yard. Filled with self-doubt, he also continues to endure the scorn of the yard’s detectives who consider him a nuisance and that of his peers who find sleuthing beneath him.
As the story begins, Lenox is called to the home of the Duke of Dorset, who wants Lenox to discreetly look into the theft of a not-very-valuable painting of one of his ancestors. Lenox soon wonders whether the thief stole the wrong painting, which was hung next to an invaluable one — possibly the only oil painting of William Shakespeare done in his lifetime.
Soon, another robbery is attempted, there’s a murder and it’s revealed that the missing painting may hold a clue to the location of a never-before-seen Shakespeare play. Lenox’s hunt for the portrait’s thief, the murderer and the missing play takes him to the halls of Bedlam hospital and the British Library as well as a pub near London Bridge and the fashionable salons of London’s West End.
Finch’s novels offer more than just cozy yet suspenseful story lines. “The Vanishing Man” also captures the culture of the time in which it’s set — there’s mention of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the novel everyone in London is reading, and mentions of Charles Dickens, John James Audubon and the Duke of Wellington. As he looks out a window at Scotland Yard, Lenox sees “in the distance” workers toiling on a project: “Some tremendous bell was going to be placed in a tower right by Parliament.” Big Ben.
It’s part of Shakespeare mythology that one day a new play will be unearthed. Finch artfully and most satisfyingly ties up this plot thread as well as that of the identity of the art thief and the murderer.
By novel’s end, Lenox learns of another suspicious death that needs investigating. In the novel’s closing sentences, Lenox’s brother watches him ride away in a carriage and wonders “to which hidden, mysterious, thrilling corner, in the great city spread before him now like a world of marvels, his brother’s new case would take him.”
Longtime fans know what the future holds for Lenox. Everyone else needs to jump into the carriage with Lenox and hold on tight.
Carol Memmott is a freelance book critic in northern Virginia.