As a kid reading Agatha Christie's novels, I longed for the well-traveled writer who set her mysteries all over the world, to ship Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to America to badger Yanks and solve a puzzle-like string of murders. It never happened but I am delighted to report that Charles Finch, whose books usually are set in England in the years before Christie's 1890 birth, has 12-year-old me covered.
Finch's witty new "An Extravagant Death" even pays homage to a Christie classic — best not to say which one — in its solution to a murder that horrifies the wealthy in Newport, R.I. It's 1878 and the party season is kicking off with shindigs hosted in the 50-bedroom "cottages" of folks with last names such as Astor and Vanderbilt. But there's a fly in the punch bowl: The summer enclave's most beautiful socialite, reportedly on the verge of accepting two marriage proposals, is found dead at the bottom of a beachside cliff. Did one of her fellow elites push her, or was it a townie, resentful of having to cater to the idle watercress sandwich eaters?
Finch sketches the manners of this snooty resort town with a Jane Austen-like precision: the calling cards, the campaigning for choice invitations, the vexing difficulty of figuring out what to do when the invitation arrives but one has not packed the right morning coat, the stunning detail that a couple would switch sides in their carriage if the woman was the man's mistress rather than his wife, so friends would know to pretend not to have seen them.
The way Finch's "gentleman sleuth" Charles Lenox interacts with the Newport swells is utterly different from the way he deals with the woman who runs the guesthouse where he stays. And the push-pull of encounters with wealthy suspects who aren't technically required to speak with Lenox (since his involvement in the case is informal) offers an entertaining glimpse into the insecurities of New Money, who can't help but be impressed by Lenox's plummy accent and bearing.
Through 14 novels in the series, Finch has proved skilled at tidying up homicides while also advancing the likably earnest character of Lenox. The reason he's been sent to America is that Scotland Yard wants him out of England to calm the fallout from government-adjacent crimes he solved in "The Inheritance." The Lenox chronology was interrupted by a trilogy of prequels but "Extravagant Death" returns to the original chronology and finds the detective continuing to assess the impact of the work he loves on the family he loves even more.
That reassessment extends to a point-of-view shift at the end of the new book that finds Lenox — and Finch — hinting at a fresh direction for the series.
I can't wait to find out what it is. I haven't read all of the Lenox novels but this is my favorite of those I have read. I'd enjoy its graceful prose and keen observations even if it weren't a dandy mystery. Which it is.
Chris Hewitt is a Star Tribune feature writer and critic. • 612-673-4367
An Extravagant Death
By: Charles Finch.
Publisher: Minotaur, 288 pages, $27.99.