Saturday, May 26, 2012


It must have been a review that sent me to Charles Finch's first mystery featuring his Victorian-era gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox, but it's been a long time since I read it (2007).  The September Society is next in the series and I went for it because it was an mp3 from Library2Go (there are so few).  (I inexplicably checked it out for three weeks, but just noticed that audiobooks can be returned early now.  Ah, progress.)  Lenox lives off his investments (or some such) in a nice London neighborhood, next door to his dear friend, the widowed Lady Jane Grey.  Approaching 40, he just needs a bit more confidence to ask for her hand.  He spends his days reading the newspapers and planning travel to exotic locations, which he will never visit.  Periodically, he takes cases from the upper classes, aided by his reliable manservant, Graham, and the crusty Scots physician Thomas McConnell.  He reminded me of a more socially adjusted Sherlock Holmes, but many others compare him to Dorothy L. Sayers' Sir Peter Wimsey.

The September Society begins in India in the 1840s when two British Army officers are shot -- seemingly by their fellow officers.  Fast forward 20 years and Lady Annabelle Payson is calling on Charles Lenox, in hopes that he will find her son, George, missing now from his Oxford college for several days.  Lenox is happy to visit Oxford -- his happy home for several years while he attended at Balliol (alma mater of Peter Wimsey and the second time it's showed up in an audiobook in a month!) -- and takes the case.  Although there is no sign of a struggle, he finds Payson's room in a mess, objects scattered in what appears to be a willy-nilly way.  A dead white cat -- stabbed through the neck -- is laying on top of a calling card that says "The September Society."  Mystified, but not particularly worried, Lenox begins his inquiries.  But two days later, a naked body completely shorn of its body hair, is found dead in Christ Church Meadow.

This was um, OK.  I could suggest it to readers looking for an historical mystery, or those that don't mind a somewhat meandering journey to the conclusion, which is your classic we're-all-assembled-here-and-the-big-reveal-will-shock-you-all.  (I was listening very closely at the beginning, so it actually didn't surprise me much.)  There's violence, but I'd classify this as a "cozy."  Lenox has numerous internal monologues about the beauty of and his happiness at Oxford, his love for Lady Jane and whether or not she loves him back (don't worry!), and the state of Britain and the Liberal Party.  He probably spends half of the novel actually gathering and assessing clues.  I liked it, but it's not the kind of series I'll be rushing to catch up on and breathlessly (OK, breathlessly is an exaggeration -- clearly I'm being influenced by teenagers) await the next installment.  But, if the next one is on the shelf one day when I'm browsing, I'll read it.

James Langton narrates the novel, and he knows exactly how to do it.  He reads with a hint of effete diffidence, perfect for a well-bred Englishman solving the crimes of his social peers.  His narration voice is slightly high and reedy without being unpleasant to listen to.  Women are softer spoken, and most of the men are louder and, well, more masculine than Lenox.  Langton -- who I listened to earlier this year -- has the British narrator's ease with regional and class accents, nicely evident in Dr. McConnell's Scottish burr and the quiet, forward-thinking (he's advocating for a new system that will match bullets with a particular gun) Scotland Yard inspector, among others.

Often when I listen to mystery novels I miss something that I'm likely to catch while reading.  Or, at least I have the capacity to scratch the itch of vaguely remembering something by leafing back through the print version.  I think The September Society was almost formulaic -- while having an interesting main character and beautifully rendered setting -- which means that the clues were hard to miss.  By this time in my reading life, if I don't know that I need to pay very close attention to a prologue set years earlier and then make even the most tenuous connections later on, well ... I have only myself to blame if I'm surprised.

[The view of Christ Church Meadow with the College in the background was taken by Bryan Pready as part of the project and was retrieved from that site.]

The September Society by Charles Finch.
Narrated by James Langton
Tantor Audio, 2011.  8:46

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