For many die-hard readers of crime fiction, there’s nothing more comforting over the holiday season than sinking into a thick, leisurely, British detective novel, studded with memorable characters like raisins in a fruitcake. Case in point: Charles Finch’s eighth Charles Lenox mystery, “The Laws of Murder,” set in London in 1876.
Lenox, recently stepped down from his seat in Parliament to resume his detective career, joins forces with three colleagues — Lord Dallington (a once infamous, now revered detective), LeMaire (a Frenchman with insider ties to expats and diplomats), and clever Polly Buchanan (a widow and savvy businesswoman who’s a dab hand with halfpenny clients and who deserves her own book). But clients aren’t beating down their door; in fact, bad press and unfair complaints from former friends in Scotland Yard have their detective agency teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
The story begins with Lenox introducing readers to his colleagues and attending to unfinished business, catching the last of seven criminals who got away, when his old friend Inspector Jenkins of Scotland Yard is murdered. Jenkins’s last words are a plea to bring Lenox into the case. The clues — an unlaced boot and a luggage ticket — lead down a twisted trail through Scotland Yard to the back alleys and docks of Victorian London. Lenox and his colleagues are fighting to clear their tarnished reputation and avenge a friend’s murder.
Not in a hurry to get started, the novel also takes its time wrapping up, leaving the reader feeling the time was well spent with justice served.
Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries are more in the amateur sleuth tradition for which Agatha Christie set the gold standard. “Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas’’ is a complex murder mystery, set in a fabulous English country house without central heating and plumbing the vagaries of the British class system with the same kind of rapier wit that Austen deployed.
The story is set just after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom. Jane and her mother and sister are on their way to spend Christmas with Jane’s miserly, clergyman brother, James.
During a snow squall the open cart he sent to fetch them is forced off the road by a coach-and-four. The coach’s occupant, dashing artist Raphael West, chivalrously sends Jane and her companions the rest of their way in his coach. He continues himself on horseback to The Vyne, a great ancestral house where he has been commissioned to paint a portrait.
After a leisurely introduction to James’s family (his silly wife could have given acting lessons to Sarah Bernhardt) and their dark, frigid, meagerly provisioned home, a welcome invitation arrives to spend Christmas at The Vyne. By now the reader will have forgotten that this is a murder mystery, but after our girl arrives at the great country house, one of the young gentlemen also visiting dies in what looks like a riding accident. But Jane and the observant Mr. West, who makes Jane’s heart quicken, determine it to be murder.
This is great fun for readers like me who long ago ran out of Jane Austen novels. Barron nails the period. She talks the talk and knows her history. The story stands up as a mystery as well, festooning its surprises in a tinsel of satire.
A treat for anyone who loves their crime fiction Sherlockian, “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes’’ offers a compendium of stories edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger. King (author of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series) and Klinger (EDITOR and annotator of “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes’’) are fresh off winning their lawsuit freeing authors to write stories inspired by the Holmes canon without paying licensing fees to the Doyle estate.
In 15 stories, an array of today’s most talented and successful authors deliver some tales featuring Holmes himself and others that are homages. In Sara Paretsky’s, “The Curious Affair of the Italian Art Dealer,” a gobsmacked Holmes meets his match, ruse for ruse and deduction for deduction, in a middle-aged spinster. Michael Connelly’s “The Crooked Man” has Harry Bosch encountering medical examiner Art Doyle who’s earned his sobriquet: Sherlock. The horse narrates Michael Sims’s “The Memoirs of Silver Blaze.” Gahan Wilson caps the affair with “How I Came to Meet Sherlock Holmes,” complete with cartoons of Holmes and Watson. The collection is diverting, delightful, and best taken with a cup of hot tea.
THE LAWS OF MURDER
By Charles Finch
Minotaur, 304 pp., 25.99
JANE AND THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
By Stephanie Barron
Soho Crime, 336 pp., 25.00
IN THE COMPANY
OF SHERLOCK HOLMES:
Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon
Edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger
Pegasus, 384 pp., 24.95
Hallie Ephron is the author of “There Was an Old Woman.”