The Woman in the Water (2018) by Charles Finch
The Woman in the Water takes us back to the early days of Charles Lenox's career as a detective. He is fresh out of Oxford and has set himself up in a London flat with Graham, who had served him at Oxford, joining him as his valet and right-hand man. He's had a couple of small cases, but despite his best efforts has not been able to win the confidence of many clients nor that of Scotland Yard. At best they think him a dilettante out for his own amusement and at worst they think him a meddler who will only get in the way.
He and Graham have instituted a ritual of combing all the newspapers--from the Times to scandal sheets for articles about crimes of all sorts. Sometimes they find the same stories, sometimes they cull entirely different articles. On this particular morning they have each pulled ten stories--and share nine. But the most intriguing one is a letter to the Challenger, one of the least reputable papers in London. It is a very pompous letter from someone who claims to have committed the perfect murder nearly a month ago and, since neither the newspapers nor the police gave it the attention it deserved at the time, plans to commit another on the one-month anniversary. It may just be a hoax. Or it may be an editor trying to drive up publication numbers. But both Lenox and Graham think there is an authentic ring to it.
So, Graham pulls all the articles from about a month ago and at first it looks like the letter is, indeed, a hoax or a fake. But then they realize that the letter may not have been printed immediately upon receipt by the newspaper and they go back a few days more. And there it is...the strangled body of an unidentified young woman found in a naval trunk and drifting in the rushes of Walnut Island in the middle of the Thames. No identification of the young woman and the story dropped out of the papers with only five articles having been written. It just didn't capture the interest of the British public and so the newshounds went off tracking more enticing stories.
Lenox, knowing that the Yard won't be too welcoming, goes straight to the top (trading on his father's place as a Lord and a member of the House of Lords) to bring this information to the police. Sir Richard Mayne takes him seriously enough to call in the inspectors who had handled the Walnut Island case--at least one of them resents Lenox's interference. But they all want to prevent a second murder if they can. Unfortunately, there is little time and a second body is found--this time laid out on a board on the bank of the Thames. She is festooned with flowers and soon becomes known as Ophelia of the Thames--a name as good as any other since once again there is nothing to identify her and no one comes forward to claim the body. Lenox manages to be on the scene in time to see her and make several observations about her attire, the board she was found on, and...a broken set of glasses beneath the board.
Sir Richard gives Lenox leave to investigate the Walnut Island case, leaving Inspectors Field and Exeter to work on the more current crime. Using just the clues found on the bank of the Thames as well as those few he finds when he examines the trunk and articles from the first murder in conjunction with the letters (yes, the murderer writes again to brag about his latest deed), Lenox begins to see some lines of investigation. But the killer doesn't want to be found (just to get the attention he deserves) and when Lenox gets too close, he learns that the killer's sights have been turned on Lenox's nearest and dearest. Can he find this genius of murder before he loses someone close to him?
Having thoroughly enjoyed the series as it featured Charles Lenox as the more established detective. It was interesting to go back to the beginning and see him as he is just starting out. He's got all the cleverness and talent for observation that is evident in the later cases, but he is young and inexperienced and...well, rather a bit sure of himself. But he's also very willing to learn from his mistakes when that sureness leads him down a blind alley and he has to to rethink his conclusions. It's easy to see how he will grow into the detective we recognize later in his life.
I also enjoyed watching the relationship between Lenox and Graham in its early stages. There is a youthful exuberance and easy friendship that is fun to read about. The two make a great team even in these early days of the detective collaboration. An entertaining and interesting look a London in the 1850s with cleverly plotted mystery. ★★★★
First line: For a little more than an hour on that May morning in 1850, the only sound in the flat in St. James's Square was the rustling of newspapers, punctuated occasionally by the crisp shear of a pair of sharpened scissors through newsprint.
The crime--as an end in itself. With no motive but itself. With no reason for existing but itself, the pleasure of its own symmetry and design. There's an evil thing. Murder for money or love or power is also evil, of course, but murder for itself belongs to some different class of person. I don't like it. (Charles Lenox; p. 78)
Last line: They rode very closely side by side, father and son, and though it was too far to see their faces at this distance, Edmund smiled to see the pure physical joy in bother their two bodies; the way that in the most intense moments of being alive, it was possible lost in living, to forget that one was even alive at all.
Deaths = 3 (strangled; one poisoned; one shot)