Friday, October 27, 2017

Gone Before Christmas by Charles Finch, a short Victorian holiday mystery

One nice consequence of the ebook revolution is that shorter works of fiction, like novelettes and novellas, can be published and bought as single titles. Charles Finch’s newest release, Gone Before Christmas, is one of these. While it may not be as long as other volumes in the Charles Lenox series (Goodreads estimates it as 80 pages), it’s a fully-fleshed-out historical mystery with the same intricate puzzling, dry humor, and Victorian ambiance.

In the days that lead-up to Christmas in 1877, Lt. Austen, of the British Army’s proud Grenadier Guards, is found to have vanished after entering the cloakroom at Charing Cross Station to retrieve a forgotten hat. His fellow officers, with whom he’d been lunching before their separate train journeys, are baffled.

So is Scotland Yard—who gets alerted because of the cloakroom’s blood-spattered wall. The situation appears grim. Austen worked in intelligence, and all conclude he never would have turned traitor, but it’s possible he was attacked and kidnapped by French spies. That’s why Lenox, partner in a successful London detective agency, is called in.

Meanwhile, Christmas preparations at Lenox’s home are in full swing, with his wife Lady Jane in charge, but the tree he’s been stuck with—a dried-up, spindly thing reminiscent of the one from the Charlie Brown Christmas special—may not last that long. The humorous banter between Lenox and his older brother, Sir Edmund, is a joy to witness, and some secondary characters, like Annie the housekeeper and even Mrs. Attlebury of Sussex, don’t need a lot of page-time for their personalities to impress.

The story’s full of details on subtle class distinctions, and you also get fun lines like this:

“France and England were rather like an unhappy couple out to supper at friends’: not presently at war, except in the sense that they were continually at war.”

As for the mystery itself… looking back, I see that the clues are all there. Lenox caught them sooner than I did (but then, he’s the professional). One aspect that confused me, though: what’s Lt. Austen’s first name? Two versions are given, and if one was a nickname/middle name, that wasn’t obvious.

It may not seem so in the beginning, but the storyline’s warmth and generosity do suit the holiday season well. The ebook ($1.99) also contains a teaser for Finch's upcoming The Woman in the Water, a prequel to the Lenox series.  This was a personal purchase.


  1. Yes, I rather like that about ebooks too. Some big name writers like Barbara Hambly, for example, have self published short stories set in their own universes - in her case, several stories set in the universe of her Benjamin January historical crime fiction. You would never have had the chance to read them in print.
    This novella sounds like fun! Must chase it up.

    Of Sirius Black And That Firebolt

  2. PS I think it's great when a crime writer doesn't cheat you, which some do. Even Agatha Christie does it sometimes. Some of her books end with Poirot sending a telegram somewhere. Of course, he has figured it out and only sends for confirmation, but the reader doesn't know, and I feel cheated. It works best if you can, eventually but nit too soon, figure it out and if you don't, then you should be able to say, "Oh, yeah, I missed that,silly me!"

  3. Oh, that would annoy me if an author cheated me out of seeing a proper ending to the mystery. I don't mind so much not being able to figure things out myself, as long as the solution seems logical. What I don't like are mysteries where the solution comes out of nowhere, or ones in which I've figured it out too far in advance. That makes me doubt the intelligence of the detective.

    I hadn't realized Barbara Hambly had some Benjamin January short stories available. I'll have to check them out. Thanks for the heads up!

    1. You need to visit her website, I think. No iBooks and probably no Kindle on Amazon. But you can get them.

    2. Just found them. There are a few novelettes and short stories on Kindle. Good to know they're there, but alas, the prices are rather steep. $5 is a lot for a 31-page story.