“The body slid heavily from the table and for a brief moment seemed to hang in the air, then broke the water’s surface with a tremendous crash. For a moment, not longer, a white ghost seemed to linger just beneath the surface, but before anyone could be sure they had seen a final glimpse of the ensheeted body it was already speeding toward the depths.”
This salty description in A Burial at Sea is one of many atmospheric touches in the fifth book in author Charles Finch’s Victorian mystery series. For the newly initiated, the series features Charles Lenox, Member of Parliament and (possibly) retired amateur detective. Here, Charles is on a mission to Egypt and the newly built Suez Canal at the urgent request of his brother, Edmund, a staid civil servant—and member of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
This seaworthy mystery adventure starts out mildly enough, but after a snowy, lamplit meeting between Charles and Edmund, Charles boards the ship Lucy, bound from London to Egypt and Port Said. He travels on what the ship’s crew believes is a diplomatic journey, but is really a clandestine mission meant to counter France’s influence in the newly burgeoning port. There’s murder aboard ship, however, and Lenox finds his detective skills pressed into service by the ship’s captain. He is soon investigating the ship’s logs, decks and wardrooms— even climbing to the crow’s nest—for clues to a brutal killer.
In this descriptive tale, the mystery and mayhem are equalled by the fascinating lore and adventure of life at sea in the 1870s. Readers are treated to first-class descriptions of all things nautical and seaworthy, including spars and songs and storms at sea; which deck is which and who goes there; and even a breathtaking game of Follow the Leader, where crew members outdo each other with death-defying acrobatics from the mizzenmast and crow’s nest.
Sandwiched in between the grog and salt beef rations, there’s shipboard gossip that hints at mutiny, mermaids and more, but talk is valuable in this contained community and may contain clues to the identity of the murderer. Lenox must listen carefully and take caution for his own life.
Readers of this expertly written adventure will welcome the change of venue from the parlors of England’s genteel classes to excitement on a seagoing vessel. Reef the mainsails! Ship ahoy!