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Book Review: A Burial at Sea

A winning Victorian sleuth finds his sea legs

Agile and good in a fight is Lenox, too. Though he worries that his detecting skills may have grown “corroded by disuse,” he quickly rises to this latest challenge, meeting an escalating series of shipboard crimes with a cool head and a steady hand. The investigation compels him to learn everything he can about the Lucy and its crew, a task that carries him literally to new heights as he climbs the ship’s rigging to the crow’s nest: “As one went higher every small wavelet that slapped against the ship seemed greater, resonating though her timbers, until, when he was only twenty feet from the top, a gentle whitecap almost knocked him loose.”

This is the fifth outing for Finch’s detective — and the point at which, in less capable hands, a successful series often risks subsiding into comfortable formula. In shaking up Lenox’s routine, Finch gives his detective a fresh spark, and offers new readers an ideal place to come aboard. If there is any complaint to be made about A Burial at Sea, it’s that one misses the familiar faces Lenox has left behind in England, especially John Dallington, his apprentice, and Graham, his resourceful butler.

Finch compensates for their absence by giving the Lucy an intriguing crew, whose hidden depths and knotty motives add ballast to the story. A Burial at Sea puts an agreeable spin on the classic locked-room mystery yarn; it’s Murder on the Orient Express as reimagined by Patrick O’Brian. By the time the Lucy returns to harbor, Finch has everything neatly tied up — shipshape and Bristol fashion.

Daniel Stashower is a two-time Edgar-winning author whose most recent book is The Beautiful Cigar Girl.

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