Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Burial at Sea

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of A Burial at Sea (Minotaur, 2011).

How frustrating! I've finished the fifth of Charles Finch's very fun 1870s-set novels about Mr. Charles Lenox, MP and detective, and that's the last of them so far. I got to the end of this book while having supper in Clemson a few weeks ago and wanted to just growl aloud because I've caught up with the author, and now have to join his many fans in drumming my fingers impatiently waiting for more.

That's not to say that I couldn't quibble a little about this one if I wanted to. While on the one hand, I really have to applaud Finch on the amount of research that he did, I fear that he didn't spend nearly as much time establishing his killer's character. My understanding of sea life in the 1800s is limited to touring the Constitution and reading Chris Schweizer's first Crogan book, but Finch really made this location come to life, and brought home just how bad things could get for somebody who gets on the wrong side of a ship's captain at sea. By sending Lenox overseas on a top secret mission to Egypt for Her Majesty's Government, it looks at first like the amateur detective is going to start a new career as a secret agent, but a gruesome murder sees his expertise needed.

Locked room killings always have the potential for fun in detective fiction, but I've never run across one where the locked room is at sea. (Yes, I'm aware Christie wrote one; I don't like Christie.) It really is unthinkable that a naval lieutenant should be murdered in this way, and the captain, charged with getting Lenox to Egypt, is torn between his duty, his demands, and his disbelief. When somebody in the crew sends a harsh message warning of mutiny and then there is a second killing, the impossibility of the situation is driven home. This would be a mess on dry land in London; at sea, the events couldn't be more grim.

And yet the revelation of the killer and the depiction of his madness completely failed to gel with me. The villain couldn't have been drawn with broader strokes had he been played by the late, great Frank Gorshin, which makes the control that he had exercised prior to his unmasking completely unbelievable. There's also a disappointing reality of just the way this fiction can be expected to behave; when the killer gets away with a solid chunk of pages left to go, then it's obvious from space that the character will reappear while the hero is dealing with his spy mission. Fortunately, I found enough to enjoy with the material in Egypt that it never felt like marking time until the murder mystery was finally resolved.

The only real complaint that I have about Finch's universe is that Lenox seemed much happier when he was not torn between his loyalties to Parliament and his family and his desire to investigate. I appreciate the honest depiction that this would be the reality for a man in Lenox's position, caught between duty and devotion, but it's left him, despite the assurances that his marriage is a happy and strong one, simply feeling adrift and torn. I hope that the author can give his character's conflict some closure in the sixth book, A Death in the Small Hours, which is due to be published this November. Otherwise, give the man's protege John Dallington the lead time; he threatened to be more interesting than Lenox in the second and fourth books anyway and could certainly carry a novel of his own. Recommended with minor reservations.

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