The Last Passenger

By Charles Finch. (Minotaur Books, 296 pages, $27.99.)

Devotees of Victorian nobleman/sleuth Charles Lenox, whose armchair exploits author Charles Finch has explored in 12 previous volumes, will delight in this prequel of sorts. Here Lenox is just starting out in his detective "career." It's a pastime at odds with the expectations of his station, expectations that include drawing-room divertissements, gentlemanly competitions (think chess), and matrimony. The last is made plain with the Austen-like opening: "On or about the first day of October 1855, the city of London, England, decided it was time once and for all that Charles Lenox be married."

Lenox has only fleeting interest in this endeavor, however, concentrating his energy on tracking down dastardly deed-doers. The newest case to catch his attention concerns the unfortunate soul of the title. Discovered in an empty train car, the man's corpse has been eviscerated of everything including, curiously, the labels of his clothes. The chase leads Lenox and his loyal butler, Graham (and doesn't every Englishman have a loyal butler named Graham?), to the seedy sides of old London town and to the acquaintance of Americans, not all of them white. This is crucial, as the fight against slavery — soon to be an ugly flash point in the United States — is the raison d'être for the last passenger's demise.

Finch paints a vivid portrait of London at mid-19th century — all picturesque snow on cobblestones — and offers delightful turns of phrase such as his description of a hapless inspector: "It wasn't Hemstock's fault that his father had been a hero. The son ought to have been running a pub somewhere into slow, genteel default." If you're not already a Lenox fan, "The Last Passenger" certainly won't be your last visit with him.