Friday, February 3, 2017
A perfectly adquate puzzle box
It is set in London in the winter 1865 and is told from the point of view of Charles Lenox, "a man of perhaps forty," a wealthy, aristocratic bachelor who has, we learn, assisted the newly-established Metropolitan Police in their inquiries in the past. That Lenox has solved their cases has not endured him to the Yard's Sergeant Exeter.
The blue death is that of Prudence Smith, an apparent suicide. She had been a maid in the household of Lady Jane Grey, "a childless widow of just past thirty," Lenox's Mayfair neighbor, and good friend. Lady Jane asks Lenox to look into the death which had occurred in the home George Bernard, the director of the Royal Mint. Lenox and his friend Thomas McConnell, a doctor and amateur scientist, go to Bernard's London mansion and establish almost immediately that Prudence was murdered by drinking a rare, and expensive poison. The game's afoot.
By the time Lenox has untangled all the clues and followed all the threads, a story so complex that the author has to explain it twice, justice has been done. In the course of it, Lenox enlists his butler Graham in quiet investigation below the stairs in Bernard's house, tries unsuccessfully to keep Lady Jane out of it, works McConnell and with his older brother Edmund an MP and around Exeter (shades of Watson, Mycroft Holmes, and Lestrade).
Because the book has been so popular (it's still in print), I have been thinking about why I found it so unsatisfactory. First, I think, because as I intimated above, it is Sherlock Holmes lite. Second, because the 1865 London setting sounds as if it's based on a carefully study of "Upstairs Downstairs" rather than on lived experience. Third, because the author did not convince me that the murderer's motivation was convincing, let alone the elaborate plot behind the murder.
I have also been considering why so many readers find it satisfactory. Perhaps they like for the reasons I'm dissatisfied: Lenox is a more engaging character than Sherlock Holmes; they are persuaded by the historic setting; and they enjoy a puzzle's tangles. If you are a reader who enjoys historical mysteries and is not troubled by anachronisms, A Beautiful Blue Death may be for you.