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Book Review: A Burial at Sea

A winning Victorian sleuth finds his sea legs

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.”

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.