Charles Lenox jumps headlong into the detective business to help a friend in need in this enthralling first mystery in the New York Times bestselling series.
Charles Lenox, Victorian gentleman and armchair explorer, likes nothing more than to relax in his private study with a cup of tea, a roaring fire and a good book. But when his lifelong friend Lady Jane asks for his help, Lenox cannot resist the chance to unravel a mystery.
Prudence Smith, one of Jane's former servants, is dead of an apparent suicide. But Lenox suspects something far more sinister: murder, by a rare and deadly poison. The grand house where the girl worked is full of suspects, and though Prue had dabbled with the hearts of more than a few men, Lenox is baffled by the motive for the girl's death.
When another body turns up during the London season's most fashionable ball, Lenox must untangle a web of loyalties and animosities. Was it jealousy that killed Prudence Smith? Or was it something else entirely? And can Lenox find the answer before the killer strikes againthis time, disturbingly close to home?
About the Author
Charles Finch is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries, including The Inheritance and A Beautiful Blue Death, which was a finalist for The Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. He lives in Chicago.
Read an Excerpt
A Beautiful Blue Death
By Charles Finch
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Charles Finch
All rights reserved.
The fateful note came just as Lenox was settling into his armchair after a long, tiresome day in the city. He read it slowly, handed it back to Graham, and told him to throw it away. Its contents gave him a brief moment of preoccupation, but then, with a slight frown, he picked up the evening edition of the Standard and asked for his tea.
It was a bitterly cold late afternoon in the winter of 1865, with snow falling softly over the cobblestones of London. The clock had just chimed five o'clock, and darkness was dropping across the city — the gas lights were on, the shops had begun to close, and busy men filled the streets, making their way home.
It was the sort of day when Lenox would have liked to sit in his library, tinkering with a few books, pulling down atlases and maps, napping by the fire, eating good things, writing notes to his friends and correspondents, and perhaps even braving the weather to walk around the block once or twice.
But alas, such a day wasn't meant to be. He had been forced to go down to the Yard, even though he had already given Inspector Exeter what he thought was a tidy narrative of the Isabel Lewes case.
It had been an interesting matter, the widely reported Marlborough forgery — interesting, but, in the end, relatively simple. The family should never have had to call him in. It was such a characteristic failure for Exeter: lack of imagination. Lenox tried to be kind, but the inspector irritated him beyond all reason. What part of the man's mind forbade him from imagining that a woman, even as dignified a woman as Isabel Lewes, could commit a crime? You could be proper or you could investigate. Not both. Exeter was the sort of man who had joined the Yard partly for power and partly because of a sense of duty, but never because it was his true vocation.
Well, well, at least it was done. His bones were chilled straight through, and he had a pile of unanswered letters on his desk, but at least it was done. He scanned the headlines of the newspaper, which drooped precariously over his legs, and absentmindedly warmed his hands and feet by the large bright fire.
What bliss was there to compare to a warm fire, fresh socks, and buttered toast on a cold day! Ah, and here was his tea, and Lenox felt that at last he could banish Exeter, the Yard, and female criminals from his mind forever.
He sat in a long room on the first floor of his house. Nearest the door was a row of windows that looked out over the street he lived on, Hampden Lane. Opposite the windows was a large hearth, and in front of the hearth were a few armchairs, mostly made of red leather, where he was sitting now, and little tables piled high with books and papers. There were also two leather sofas in the middle of the room, and by the window a large oak desk. On the other two walls there were oak bookshelves that held the library he had collected over the years.
Lenox was a man of perhaps forty, with brown hair still untouched by age. He had been lean in his youth, and now, though he weighed more, he was still a tall thin man who stood erect, though without the uncomfortably ascetic bearing of many tall thin men. He had bright cheeks, a pleasant smile, and a short beard, such as men in Parliament were wont to wear. His eyes were a clear hazel and occasionally betrayed his geniality, for they would sharpen when he was absorbed with an idea or a suspicion.
If at twenty he had been single-minded and occasionally obsessive, at forty he had mellowed and now preferred to sit in front of a warm fire, reading the newspaper with a cup of tea in his hand. He had always loved his friends and his family dearly but took more pleasure in them now. He had always loved his work but allowed himself to be diverted from it more often now. It had simply happened that he had never married, and now he was a thorough bachelor, comfortable company but set in his ways and a good deal more snug at home than in the first ambition of his youth. Lenox hadn't changed, in his own estimation; and yet of course he had, as all men do.
The tea tray sat on a small side table by his chair, next to a stack of books, several of which had fallen to the floor, where he had left them the night before. The servants had learned by now to leave his library as he left it, except for an occasional dusting. He poured a healthy cup of tea, took a large scoop of sugar and a splash of milk, and then turned his attention to the plate of toast. Graham had thoughtfully added a small cake, which was a rare treat. But then, it had been a trying day.
After several cups of tea, a few pieces of toast, and a slice of the cake, he pushed the tray away with a feeling of contentment, dropped his paper on the floor, and picked up a slim leather volume. It was a recently published edition of The Small House at Allington, which he was reading slowly in order to savor it. Today he would give himself two chapters: another small reward for coping with both Inspector Exeter and the fearsome weather.
Graham came in after a moment to take away the tray.
"Excuse the interruption, sir," he said, "but will there be a reply to Lady Grey's letter?"
"It's horribly cold outside, Graham."
"Really horribly cold. You expect a seal to stroll by you on the street."
"Are you warm now, sir?"
"Yes, a little better. I was only thinking about the cold."
Lenox sighed. "I suppose I'll have to go next door, though." There was a pause while he looked glumly into the fire.
"To Lady Grey's, sir?" said Graham.
Lenox didn't respond. He continued to look glum. Finally he said, "Yes, to Lady Grey's. I hate to do it, though."
"I'm sorry to hear that, sir," said Graham.
"It's beastly cold outside."
"It is, sir."
Lenox looked more and more glum. "Can't be helped, I expect," he said.
Lenox sighed. "Will you get my things, then?"
"Of course, sir," said Graham. "Does this mean that you don't wish to reply —"
"No, no, no. That's why I'm going over."
"Very good, sir."
As the butler left, Lenox stood up and walked over to the window behind his desk. He had been looking forward to a night in by the fire, but he was being foolish, he thought. It was only a house away. He should put his boots on — they were tossed under his desk, next to an open copy of Much, Ado — and get ready to go. They would be just about dry, he hoped. And in truth he looked forward to seeing her.
Lady Jane Grey was a childless widow of just past thirty, who lived in the next house over. She was one of his closest friends in the world. This had been the case ever since they were children in Sussex. Sir Edmund, Charles's older brother, had once been in love with Lady Jane, but that was when they were all much younger, when Charles was just out of Harrow and on his way to Oxford.
Lenox and Lady Jane were neighbors on Hampden Lane, living next to each other in a row of gray stone houses on a little slip of an alley just off of St. James's Park in the neighborhood of Mayfair. As it had been for some time, Mayfair was the most prestigious address in London — and yet he had decided to live there because it was so near St. James's, where Lenox had gone with his father when he was a child.
The park was surrounded by palaces: Buckingham Palace to the left, St. James's Palace to the right, and Westminster Palace, more commonly known as Parliament, straight ahead. Like so many parks in London it had begun life as a place for Henry VIII to shoot deer, but Charles II, whom Lenox had always been fond of as a schoolboy, had opened it to the public and had often fed the ducks there himself, where he could talk with his subjects. Only thirty years ago they had changed all the canals into lakes, bred swans on the lakes, and planted beautiful willow trees. People skated there in the winter and walked through the brilliant green fields in the summer, and no matter what season it was, Lenox took a walk through it most nights — at least when he didn't have a case.
As he looked through the window of his library, Lenox could see the chimneys on Hampden Lane giving off black wisps of smoke, as his own did, and he could see that all of the houses were brightly lighted, and inside all of them tea was either on the table or had just been finished.
He stepped back from his window and told himself that he would see about the note in a few minutes. Perhaps Jane would have another cup of tea for him, at any rate. For now, he picked up the evening paper again and read with great interest, while Graham arranged his things, about the parries that Disraeli and Russell were trading back and forth; for Parliament was just back in session.CHAPTER 2
Even his meager boots, which had failed him all day long, were able to carry Lenox a distance as short as next door without his feet getting too wet. He tapped on the door, cheerfully calling out "Lady Jane!" through a side window.
Among the qualities that made Lenox perhaps the premier amateur investigator of his era was his memory. He could call up in his mind without any trouble crime scenes, people's faces, and, most easily, notes from his friends. Lady Jane's note had said:
Would you come over before supper, perhaps at a little past six o'clock? Something has happened. Do come, Charles.
Yours, faithfully, &c. Jane
After a moment's worry, Lenox had decided not to be alarmed. Close friends can write such notes to each other over small matters. He grew gradually more certain that it was something usual — one of her nieces was in love with the wrong man, one of her nephews had gambling debts — the sort of thing she always consulted Lenox about.
Lady Jane's butler was an enormously fat man named Kirk. He had gone into her service when Graham had gone into Lenox's, and the two butlers had been friends ever since, though Graham gave the impression that he slightly disapproved of Kirk's gluttony. At Lenox's knock, Kirk opened the door, looking graver than usual, and led him into the drawing room where Lady Jane sat, waiting alone.
She was a very pretty woman, almost pale, with dark hair, red cheeks, and red lips. Her eyes were gray and often seemed amused, but they were never cynical, and her intelligence shone out of them. She wore her usual white frock top with a gray skirt.
Her husband had been Captain Lord James Grey, Earl of Deere, and they had married when they were both twenty. Almost instantly he had died in a skirmish along the Indian border, and since then she had lived alone in London, though she paid frequent visits to her family, who lived near the Lenoxes in Sussex.
She had never remarried and was considered one of the high rulers of the best part of society. Such was the general respect for her that nobody ever so much as breathed a question about her friendship with Lenox, which was long and very close — perhaps the closest in either of their lives — but admittedly somewhat odd, given the general restrictions that governed the interaction between men and women. Lenox counted on her as the brightest and the kindest person he knew.
The drawing room was Lady Jane's equivalent of Lenox's library, and he knew its contents by heart. It was a rather wide room and also looked out over the street. The wall on the right side was covered with paintings of the countryside, and on the far end was a fireplace that reached nearly to the ceiling, with a bronze sculpture of the Duke of Wellington standing on the mantel, to the left of which there was a desk. In the middle of the room was a group of sofas, one of which, a rose-colored one, being where Lady Jane always sat.
And there she was when Lenox came in.
"Oh, Charles!" she said, standing and rushing toward him.
There was no deviant nephew, he saw immediately. Something had gone seriously wrong. He took both of her hands and led her back to the couch.
"Have you had your tea?" Lenox said.
"No, I'd forgotten," she said. "Kirk —"
She stopped speaking and looked to Charles, still gripping his hands.
"Kirk," he said, to the butler still standing at the door. "Bring us two glasses of warm brandy. Have someone come in to fix the fire, as well. And then bring us tea, with a bit of food."
"Very good, sir."
Lenox looked at Lady Jane and smiled. "It will be all right, old friend," he said.
"Oh, Charles," she said again, despairingly.
A footman came in and gave them each a small silver-handled glass. Lady Jane drank her brandy, and then drank Lenox's when he handed it to her, while the footman prodded the fire back into shape. Then she began to speak.
"It's ridiculous, I know," she said, "but I feel a bit as though I'm in shock."
"What happened, my dear?" asked Lenox.
"Do you remember a girl named Prudence Smith, Charles, a maid I used to have? We called her Prue."
He paused to think. "No, I don't," he said.
"She left about three months ago to work for George Barnard, because her fiancé is a footman in his house."
"And what's the matter with her?"
"She's dead," said Lady Jane, and took the last sip of brandy in her glass to steady her nerves.
"I'm so sorry," he said.
"I know," she said. "It's too, too awful."
"Do you have any idea of how she died?"
"Poison, I think. That's what the housemaid here says. It was she who heard the news."
"Or suicide. I don't know."
"It's too much to ask —"
"I was hoping —"
"Of course," he said.
He looked outside. He would have to begin right away. The snow was falling even harder, and it was almost dark, but he turned back to her, smiled cheerfully, and said, "I'd better go over while the trail is fresh."
She smiled through her tears, and said, "Oh, Charles, it's too good of you. Especially on a day when it's so cold."
He sat with her a few minutes longer, making small talk, trying to comfort her, and then asked Kirk for his hat. Lady Jane walked him to the door and waved goodbye as he stepped into a hansom cab and directed the driver to Bond Street.
George Barnard would dislike this, thought Lenox as he rode along. He was a man of immense personal pride, which extended equally to his finest paintings and his lowest pots and pans. A death by poison in his house would offend both his own impervious sense of order and his certainty that most of the world ran by his clock.
He was a politician — once a Member of Parliament, though more recently he had been appointed to a variety of more permanent government roles. He and Lenox were friends, or, more accurately, acquaintances who came into frequent contact. Lenox had too little personal ambition to be counted among Barnard's truest friends. And had begun with too much money.
Barnard, by contrast, had grown up in impoverished middle-class gentility, somewhere slightly south of Manchester — a far cry from Whitehall. How he had made his money was considered a great mystery, and London society was constantly speculating about it. Some said he had made his first fortune playing on the Exchange, or even as a merchant, but if either was true he had long since thrown it off. He had arrived in London as a conservative MP but had quickly left elective government for unelected posts.
He was currently the director of the Royal Mint, a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton, which explained why he had begun to buy the physicist's possessions at recent auctions. He had done well as the mint's director, a job in which he worked hard — apparently, according to most people, because he so loved the material of his labor: namely, money.
George Barnard's single quirk was the orchid. Atop his house was a glassed-in greenroom, to which he admitted very few people and in which he tenderly cultivated his flowers, splicing their delicate hues in search of a perfect subtle shade, closely guarding the amount of water and sun each plant received. He traveled far and wide, in his rare holidays, to collect species of a commensurate rareness. The destination didn't matter to him, unless you could call some genus of orchid a destination.
Excerpted from A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch. Copyright © 2007 Charles Finch. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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