It was the cover of this book, that particular yellow and the three shelves of interestingly-shaped bottles with their lovely old labels, that made me pick it up from a pile of books someone left in the lobby of the apartment building where I live. It sat on my shelf for a few months, and then I picked it up on a chilly January night, and these were the sentences that made me decide now was the time to read it: "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" (1).
Charles Lenox, amateur investigator, is warming up by the fire after a long day when we first meet him. He's soon disturbed from his rest, though, by a note from his next door neighbor/close friend, Lady Jane Grey, asking him to come over. One of her former maids, Prudence Smith, has been found dead—poison— and she wants Charles to go have a look: was it suicide (there's a note), or was it murder? Charles obliges her and heads over to the crime scene, the home of Prudence's most recent employer, one George Barnard. A young Scotland Yard detective is already on the scene, and he's willing to agree with Barnard's assessment that it was suicide, but of course Lenox points out the clues and details he's missing: like, for instance, the lack of a pen for the suicide note to have been written with, despite the fact that the note looks fresh and never folded, like it was written just where it was found. So: if this is a murder—and this is
a murder mystery—who killed Prue Smith, and why? In trying to figure it out, Lenox has to contend with his woefully unimaginative Scotland Yard nemesis, one Inspector Exeter, who's been pulled onto the case by Barnard after it becomes clear that the young detective who began the investigation might end up agreeing with Lenox that it isn't a suicide. He also has the imperious Barnard himself to contend with, plus the prime suspects: five guests who were staying with Barnard at the time of the crime.
I mostly like the style of this book: there is lots of tromping around in wintry weather and coming home damp and cross and making things right again with a warm fire and tea and toast, and there's sweetness and humor in Lenox's relationship with Lady Jane. Sometimes all these things combine, to great effect, as in scenes like this:
The tea came a moment later, and Jane, as she always did, served it.
"Two pieces of toast?" she asked.
"How about four?"
"A bear couldn't eat four pieces of toast!"
"A bear who had walked through London all day, and stepped in a puddle, and been betrayed by a cabdriver, very well might eat four pieces of toast." (70-71)
Sometimes, though, there's too much exposition, too much historical detail just for the sake of it, so it starts to feel like a history lesson, like when Lenox starts thinking about when the Metropolitan Police Force was organized, and how it was organized by Robert Peel, and how the police therefore were called peelers or bobbies; or when Lenox muses on gentlemen's clubs and the separation of men and women in the Victorian era: it doesn't seem like a character of that time would really be thinking those things, even an intelligent, thoughtful, detail-oriented character of that time. There are some small errors and inconsistencies, too: at one point we're told that two characters are talking just after six in the evening, but then a few pages later, though the plot has been moving sequentially forward, we're told that it was almost six when they finished talking. At another point, Cleopatra's Needle is mentioned—as someone else whose review I read on Goodreads noted, Cleopatra's Needle wasn't even in
London in 1865. Even so, this book was a pleasing read, good enough that I might seek out its sequels (it's the first in a series), and pretty much exactly what I was in the mood for right now: a wintry book to curl up with on wintry nights.