Charles Finch’s A Burial at Sea

Charles Finch – author of the Victorian historical mystery series starring Charles Lenox – is a graduate of both Yale and Oxford. An American who lives in Oxford, Lennox earned a Master’s degree in literature and writes in the tradition of the English masters. A Burial at Sea is the 5th novel in his Charles Lennox series. The first novel was nominated for the Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007.

The Charles Lennox series is reminiscence of the best golden-age British detective novels. His mysteries will appeal to those who value tradition and a way of life that celebrates honour and conservative ideals. Like historical mystery novelists, Anne Perry (see my posts on Paragon Walk and A Christmas Secret) and Peter Lovesey, Finch sets his novels in Victorian England.

Lennox, an idealistic and highly principled detective, becomes a member of the British parliament during the course of these novels. Like Lord Wimsey, the upper-class detective in Dorothy Sayers’s novels (see my posts on Clouds of Witness and Murder Must Advertise), Lenox does not have to earn a living. Also like Wimsey, he decides to work as an unpaid detective rather than lead a life of leisure. Wealthy, patrician, and educated at Oxford, Lennox is an appealing and likeable character. His romantic interest in Lady Jane Grey is another attraction of these novels.

A Burial at Sea, one of the best books in the series, is Finch’s first nautical mystery. Charles Lenox is asked by the Prime Minister to go on a secret mission to the Suez Canal. He travels on The Lucy, a naval ship built in the prime of the global seafaring era. Once he boards this magnificent ship, he anticipates a splendid voyage. “What he couldn’t know,” we are told, “was that the first murder was less than a day away” (32). Finch creates a closed world of suspects by situating the murder of an officer in a sealed-off locale. Like Agatha’s Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and the Mystery of the Blue Train, Finch’s novel is set in a large public transport vehicle.

Murder on sea, notes Symons, is a variation of the enclosed-setting mystery (such as the country-house, snow-bound or locked-room novel) and is popular
for a number of reasons, including the romantic potential that enables it to appeal to a larger audience. There are various opportunities for accidents which complicate the plot and action, and can contribute to the shifting pattern of suspicion that is characteristic of mystery and detective fiction in general. The cramped, claustrophobic setting has atmospheric potential comparable to that of a more Gothic locale. (2005, 53)
What distinguishes the narrative is the way Finch combines mystery, adventure, history, and nautical fiction. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly claims, “Agatha Christie meets Patrick O’Brien in Finch’s accomplished fifth whodunit” (2011, 59).

Finch perfectly captures the spirit of maritime adventure in this spirited historical tale. Nautical stories have traditionally been characterized by high adventure, intense danger, and life-and-death battles with the elements. The heroes of such novels have customarily dealt with such challenges as:
life-threatening storms, reefs, deadly calms, scurvy, shipwreck, barren coasts, sharks, whales, mutinies, deadly clams, scurvy, shipwreck, barren coasts, sharks, whales, mutinies, warring navies, natives, cannibals, and pirates – in short, they have adventures, as many such novels emphasized with the wording in their titles.” (Cohen 2010, 3)
Such challenges are intermixed with the mystery element in Finch’s narrative.

Those who enjoy the swashbuckling excitement of the high seas, will love this novel. In her New York Times’s review of the novel, Marilyn Stasio writes that A Burial at Sea is “a rousing nautical adventure, set on an English ship awash with murders, storms and the threat of mutiny on its journey to Egypt. . . . Finch’s descriptions of life at sea are so fascinating it’s a shame Lenox must bring this case to an end.”

The murder onboard ship heightens the sense of danger and suspense. Anyone who loves both sea adventures and mystery novels will find a winning combination in A Burial at Sea.

“A Burial at Sea,” Publishers Weekly 258, no. 37 (2011): 59-60.

Cohen, Margaret. The Novel and the Sea. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Finch, Charles. A Burial at Sea. New York: Minotaur Books, 2011.

Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.