A Beautiful Blue Death is the first in the Charles Lenox Mysteries by Charles Finch. These are set in 1865 London and feature a gentleman detective and his next door neighbor and best friend, Lady Jane Grey. Coming from a wealthy and high class family, Charles Lenox takes cases that he cares about, never charging a fee. Therefore, when Lady Jane hears the disturbing news that her former maid, Prue, has died of poisoning, she asks Lenox to investigate. He takes a doctor friend who has been able to devote his time to research instead of earning money and thus knows a lot about poisons. Though the detective from Scotland Yard initially wants to declare the death a suicide, Lenox’s doctor friend determines that Prue has died of the extremely rare and expensive poison bella indigo, which a maid could never have obtained. Lenox clinches the fact that this is murder and not suicide with the news that Prue could neither read nor write, and so could never have written the suicide note.
Lenox goes through a series of investigations, going between the worst part of town, the Rookery, and the center of power, the Parliament building, where his older brother and heir to the family title, serves. This older brother gives him highly classified information and physical assistance crucial to determining the identity of the murderer. In addition, Graham, Lenox’s butler, does his own sleuthing, reminiscent of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Bunter.
Complications come in the objections to the investigation by Prue’s wealthy employer, George Barnard, who does his best to derail even Scotland Yard, using his influence to get a new detective when the first concurs with Lennox about murder instead of suicide. However, eventually even the notoriously dim-witted Exeter must agree with Lennox, giving him the lead in searching for the criminal.
This book was highly received at its publication, nominated for an Agatha Award and named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007. People particularly appreciate the relationships that Lennox cultivates with both Lady Jane and his butler, Graham.
Personally, however, I did not connect with the characters to the extent that many reviewers did. I admit to some prejudice towards Sayers’ Bunter, one of my favorite characters in detective fiction. (Watch my ongoing series of the Three Grand Dames of Mystery in about a year for my reviews of the books by Sayers). So it would take someone extraordinary for me to compare a character favorably to Bunter, and while I see promise for Graham to develop more in later books, he did not endear himself to me the way he seemed to do for some reviewers.
I also thought that, while the solution to the mystery was well-thought-out, the book just did not grip me the way a good book usually does. Therefore, I give A Beautiful Blue Death three stars.
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Editor’s note: For an earlier, different opinion of the book, see Jessica Greenlee’s earlier review. She quite enjoyed the detached puzzle nature of the tale.