A Beautiful Blue Death – Charles Finch

A Beautiful Blue Death - Charles Finch

I never reviewed this? But reviews of the books I dislike always go faster! Well, here it is.

Alas, suckered in yet again by a beautiful cover and really good title. The title, however, is pedantically explained away very quickly in the book – and that is pretty much how the rest of the writing runs as well. Repetition and a strong case of the “Captain Obvious is obvious” make up the dominant style here: the first chapter is spent largely on explaining how Our Hero Lenox has just come home and it's cold and he doesn't want to go out again. He wants to stay by his fire with a book. He would rather not go out in the cold again. "I say, Graham, it's cold out." [Graham, the butler does not say:] "Yes, you bleeding twit, you've said that four times already." And Lenox does go out, and – lo, and behold: it's cold.

And so on.

One character, McConnell, whom Lenox brings in for medical advice, is a drunken failure. And oh, he's a doctor. And he drinks. And he is despised by many as a failure. Because he drinks.

And so on.

There is a summary description of the downward spiral of the man's marriage, with no more emotion than the description of Lenox's study, and no insight or empathy: simply a list of events.

There is no artistry to the writing. Which in and of itself can be fine – I don't expect (or want) every line to drip with poetry. But some flair, something to distinguish the style from a generic children's book or textbook might be nice – something to indicate that the author actually has a reason to want to be an author rather than an actuary or arborist. Instead, much of it consists of a section of dialogue, brought to a complete standstill by a paragraph or two describing a room minutely, or talking about the history of the police force: very much see-Spot-run.

There is one sentence that stood out for me as a great example of why I just didn't enjoy this book: "You could have knocked Lenox over with a feather." The narration constantly brings me into it – "you" this and "you" that, and it started feeling like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. And such a cliché… Personally, I'd work very hard to avoid such a vapid chestnut. Finch does not.

There were small – and not-so-small – errors scattered throughout. Example: the description of a place with awnings up in midwinter. A snowy midwinter. That’s not a good idea; they wouldn’t stay up for long. Example: Lenox is attacked by two men. One of them has a very prominent tattoo – a hammer alongside his left eye. Earlier in the book, someone made mention of a gang of roughs called the Hammer. Hmmmm. And yet – Lenox never mentions the (extremely prominent) tattoo when he talks about the attack, and he wonders and he ponders on whoever could have done it. Small examples: "McConnell! Lenox! A toast!" – but there isn't one. And "I'll use the old call" – a signal he and his brother used as children – which consists of yelling his brother's name. These boys and their cryptic private codes …

There are two threads running, quite annoyingly, through the whole blessed book: Lenox has bad boots which leave his feet cold and wet, and every meal or snack or beverage he partakes of is detailed. (Not even lovingly detailed – just … detailed.) It goes back to the feeling that this is a children's book: "and then Charles had four pieces of toast!" (not an actual quote). And for the love of Bob, man, you're rich and you live in London - you have no excuse – stop your whingeing and go get a decent pair of bloody boots.


ETA: Speaking of food, one sentence I marked was: "They ate very simple food - cold sliced tomatoes, mashed potatoes, and milk" - ew ew ew ew ew.

It seems to take forever to get through the solution of the mystery, and then it finally ends. But there is still a good-sized chunk of the book left. And then comes another ending. And another. The piecemeal wrap-up and coda are painful.

I find it a bit of a stretch to believe that this drunken failure of what used to be a good doctor (remember him?) could take a five-minute look at the corpse and pronounce it death by bella indigo, repeatedly stressed to be a rare and expensive poison. It might be easier to swallow thinking of it by its more common name, deadly nightshade – but why on earth did I have to look that up? Why didn't the revelation go something like: "Ah! I believe it was bella indigo." Lenox looked blank [as I imagine he often did], and McConnell clarified, "Usually known as deadly nightshade." "Oh – well, that I've heard of." And why such an emphasis on the cost of it? Forty pounds a dose or whatever, fine – but I daresay it could also be found growing in assorted fields and hedgerows, and wouldn't take overmuch technique to render into a usable poison. Or maybe it would. I have no idea – and, after reading this book, I kind of think I should.

However, maybe the doctor intuits the real poison used because, though a drunk, he's just that awesome. Quote: "My own opinion is that one day even a single speck of something will tell us everything about it". Really. Gosh. How perspicacious of you.

There are several things that just don't feel right for the time period this is set in. They may be just fine; they may be down to Lenox's odd character (or Finch’s attempt to be unique); it all just felt very off. Example: Lenox, a gentleman, straggles down to breakfast – and other meals – in his robe and slippers. Example: Lady Jane promises Lenox the first dance at some shindig, and then partners someone else. I don't care if that someone else is the host, I thought that was the height of bad manners. Example: People drink a great deal of water in the book, which may be just fine, but maybe I was thinking of medieval London, when to drink water was to court some brand of dysentery. I just found it very, very odd that, for example, waiters were circulating about a ballroom with trays of glasses of water. If nothing else I would expect something like that to prompt scandalized and shocked whispers about the host’s parsimony and lack of hospitality.

And one more: Lenox belongs to multiple clubs. I went back and collected them: The Athanaeum Club, the Savile, the Devonshire, the Eton and Hammer, the Oriental, the Marlborough, the Oxford and Cambridge, and the Travelers. Seriously, eight clubs? Maybe it's possible – each of these is apparently slanted toward a different interest – but in my limited experience with fiction of the period I've never seen a character who belonged to more than one. That was kind of the point of a club, I thought – to belong, for there to be a sort of pied-à-terre or comfortable place away from home. Eight boltholes seems a bit excessive, especially for a man who loves his home and seems a bit of a homebody.

Next door to Lenox lives his best friend, called Lady Jane, who brings him into the case. He-who-was-Richard points out in his review that, really, "Lady Jane Grey" is only called that to be cute. "Her husband had been Captain Lord James Grey, Earl of Deere", so she ought indeed to be "Lady Deere" (or something). This mistake does not boost confidence in the author (but it does line up with other small mistakes, like those above). Jane is supposed to be feisty and independent and intelligent – and I know this because I'm told so. This is the sum total of her characterization. Now, naturally, a relationship such as Lenox and Jane have could easily be seen as "inappropriate", i.e. sexual – but it's okay! The author makes sure to hammer home the fact that they're just friends! It's ok! They have a special relationship!

Another special relationship for Lenox is that with his butler, the aforementioned Graham. In other reviews folks noted that Lenox is supposed to echo Lord Peter in some ways, and I have to say I feel that that is pretty silly. The closest point of comparison is this man-manservant relationship, but … no. The bond between Bunter and Peter was built over the course of the whole series of books, with a revelation of their past here and a present-day moment there, and it was beautiful. Here, the whole past and present of the relationship is vomited out in one chapter. Also? Graham is no Bunter, and I can't believe the universe even allows me to put Lenox and Lord Peter in the same sentence.

Charles Lenox. I'm sorry, he's just dull. The single solitary real Lord-Peter-esque thing about him is that he's the younger son of a peer who investigates crimes as a whim. But he's just such a schlub. He plans exotic trips that never happen. He muddles on very happily in a lovely city home and buys whatever he wants (except a decent pair of boots). The way Lenox treats his books did not endear him to me. He repeatedly knocks piles of books off desks and whatnot, and leaves them there. Lord Peter would flatten his nose for him.

And his investigative skills? There's the main reason that the Lord Peter comparisons make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Not out of fear or whatever, but more in the manner of a really pissed-off dog's hackles rising. He's not a smart man, Lenox, or at least he's not written as such, though I think the reader is expected to think him ever so clever. His method of interrogating suspects is to ask "Did you kill her?" He seems convinced each time that he'll receive an answer other than an outraged "No!" Oh, and the initial crime scene? Lenox mocks the pinch-hitting detective for believing in a suicide – but how can he think otherwise when a) no one points out the pen thing (which yes he should notice, but almost no one did); b) he has no way of knowing for certain the girl was illiterate and couldn't have written a suicide note; c) most importantly, Lenox took away evidence that was sitting there. Lenox and McConnell also undressed (and redressed?) the corpse. This kind of tampering with a crime scene would be literally criminal if this book had been set in even a slightly later age.

So, no, the man is no Lord Peter. He's no Sherlock Holmes, either, God knows, although he plays at it, making Sherlockian deductions based on observation. The difference – well, the difference reminds me of Much Ado About Nothing: "And then they laugh at him, and beat him." Holmes disarms people, and frightens some, and impresses everyone when he tells them details he couldn't possibly know. Lenox tries it a couple of times, and just annoys people.

Just as he annoyed me.

I really need to review something I LIKED.