A Death in the Small Hours is the sixth installment of the Lenox mystery series and his best one to date. If you’ve never read the Lenox series, don’t fret as each of his books can be read as a standalone. Although Finch isn’t one of those writers to drown you in a character’s back story, I do believe a reader new to the series will fail to appreciate the personal history of his characters. As the series progresses, the Lenox characters grow and I’m afraid a reader will miss key elements that would help further understand a character’s way of thinking or reaction to a situation. Therefore, I do recommend you start at the beginning with A Beautiful Blue Death and work your down the list, but it’s not necessary.
Set in 1874, A Death in the Small Hours picks up right where we left off at the end of A Burial at Sea. Our favorite Victorian gentleman, Charles Lenox, finds himself contemplating life. He has everything a man should want for: a loving wife, a daughter, and is a highly respected member of the House of Commons. There’s just one small problem…he misses being a detective. At times Lenox does question if he made the right decision leaving his now defunct career as a detective for that of a life in Parliament. Lenox loves politics, “but for all his pleasure in the long debates and the hushed hallway conversations of his present life, Lenox had never quite felt as viscerally engaged with Parliament as he had with crime.” Meeting with his protégé, Lord John Dallington, of course doesn’t help shake off the feeling that perhaps he made the wrong decision. In key scenes like these your heart aches for Lenox.
When the opportunity comes to deliver the opening speech, Lenox decides to spend a few quiet weeks in Somerset to work on his speech. He seeks refugee at Everley, his Uncle Frederick Ponsonby’s house in Plumbley. Uncle Freddie takes the opportunity to request Lenox’s assistance in a serious matter. Plumbley has been plagued by a series of vandalisms where baffling clues have left behind; that of a sketch of a man and a black dog along with roman numerals painted on a church door. The question: who is behind this and why. Lenox gets the chance to dip his toes in detection and when a murder occurs he knows time is of the essence. The mystery itself is satisfying and Finch isn’t one to make it easy on a reader regarding the suspect list. Be prepared to admit defeat.
For readers not familiar with nineteenth century England, Finch provides detailed descriptions in both political, social, and industrial. While Finch gives us history lessons, he does it in a subtle format. For example, Lenox arrives in London from Somerset and immediately stepping off the train platform his eyes sting from the London fog. He goes on to explain, “It was a worsening problem; on one day earlier that month the mixture of yellow fog and coal smoke—what residents called the London Particular—had been so bad that the police ordered the streetlamps lit during the daylight hours, not much after noon.” Coal was the primary fuel used in the nineteenth century as a source of heat and power. As the coal soot drifted down it mixed with smoke and fog causing a London Particular. The death of cattle mentioned in A Death in the Small Hours due to this London Particular did indeed happen. On December 10, 1873, cattle being exhibited at the Great Show at Islington suffocated; the smoke was so thick it was impossible to see across the street and many reported a choking sensation was felt while breathing. Finch also makes you contemplate little tidbits he weaves within the narrative. For example, “A funny quirk of the language, as the Times had pointed out recently, that in Britain the Royal Mail delivered the post, while in the United States, the Postal Service delivered the mail.” When I mentioned this particular piece to a friend her response was, “(long pause) I think my brain just exploded.” We spent the next several minutes discussing this in great detail.
If I could take a moment to discuss Finch’s writing; I’m the first to admit that I love his writing. A Death in the Small Hours is his best to date; it’s beautifully written and evocative. Finch’s narrative of Lenox with Sophia left me spellbound. Lenox describing his visit in 1854 to Sophia had me smiling with tears in my eyes. In every Lenox and Sophia scene, you could feel the love Lenox has for his daughter. When I think about which scenes stand out, I’d say the cricket scene is at the top of the list along with the advice in speech writing, however; there were three particular scenes that had me in tears. I worry about spoilers and will keep quiet regarding what they are; however, I will say this, as I write this the emotions associated with those three scenes still leave me a bit emotional.
While A Death in the Small Hours does lag on occasion, it is by no means a snore. Some have questioned the need for the cricket scene, but upon reflection it is integral to the plot. Fans of the series may criticize the short appearance of several beloved characters. Dallington plays a vital, but small role; Graham and McConnell’s appearance was short and I longed for more. We are introduced to two new characters and I cannot wait to see their appearance in future books. Finch does a superb job with the narrative and you’ll walk away contemplating life and one’s decisions. The only outcome of course is to move forward and anticipate the future.