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Book Review: A Burial at Sea

A winning Victorian sleuth finds his sea legs

A Burial at Sea by Charles Finch

The year is 1873. Five British spies have been murdered in Egypt, apparently at the hands of the rival French. Amid stirrings of war, Her Majesty’s government must dispatch an emissary whose abilities and discretion are above reproach. For Sir Edmund Lenox, who advises Prime Minister Gladstone on matters of military intelligence, there’s only one man for the job: his younger brother, Charles.

See also: An interview with James Patterson.

As readers of Charles Finch’s engaging historical whodunits know by now, the aristocratic Charles Lenox had been a renowned amateur detective in his bachelor days. But at the start of his newest novel, A Burial at Sea, Lenox is decidedly more settled — as a member of Parliament, no less — and newly married to his longtime love, Lady Jane Grey, who is expecting their first child. These circumstances make the prospect of a long sea voyage to Egypt distinctly unappealing. But Lenox yields to his sense of duty — he is British, after all — and soon finds himself bound for the Suez Canal.

Matters take a bloody turn when, a few days out of port, Lenox is roused from his bunk by the ship’s captain. An officer has been found dead on the quarterdeck, eviscerated with clinical precision. The dead man’s heart, observes the ship’s physician, “was still hot to the touch.” Lenox launches an investigation at the urging of the captain, who hopes that a quick resolution will defuse the gathering threat of mutiny.

Finch relishes the details of seafaring life. He is especially good at rendering the crisp routine of the ship and the rugged pride of her officers and crew, even under the dark cloud of a mid-ocean murder. Finch writes with clarity and precision, providing a boatload of information without bogging down in detail, as when Lenox catches his first glimpse of the ship that will be his home for the next several weeks: “Lucy had come off the same dockyards as Her Majesty’s ship Challenger in the same year, 1858, and both were corvettes, ships designed not for firing power, like a frigate, or quick jaunts out, like a brig, but for speed and maneuverability …. The Challenger, which was well known because of its long scientific mission to Australia and the surrounding seas, was quicker than the Lucy, but the Lucy was thought to be more agile and better in a fight.”

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