An Englishman in Newport

A prepublication Big5+ review

Gilded Age amateur sleuth

r/suggestmeabook: I want a sedate journey through Gilded Age high society with a little murder mixed in.

Rating: G

Publication date: 2/16/2021

From the publisher: London, 1878. “An Extravagant Death” finds Sir Charles Lenox traveling to Gilded Age Newport and New York to investigate the death of a beautiful socialite.

Charles Finch has managed to capture the sedate pace of a period before cell phones and Google. The first ten chapters are part history lesson, part travelogue. As a denizen of the hurry-up present, that didn’t feel sedate; it felt slow, but in a way Louisa May Alcott doesn’t feel for me. Instead, it felt like a delay to get to the meat of the novel—ten chapters to get to the damn murder.

The book blurb doesn’t help: It makes it sound as though the protagonist has gone to the States specifically to solve the murder, but that’s not how it works at all.

Obviously a great deal of historical research has gone into the story, but sometimes the inclusion of the lovely bits feels a little forced, as is the case of the multiple mentions of “back log.” We meet historic personages and places with no bearing on the plot—which, coupled with the delay in getting to the main subject of the book, isn’t as interesting as it could be if better integrated into the mains storyline.

On the other hand, very young men accustomed to all their wishes being granted could be unpredictable; more than that, were one of the great lurking threats in the world, in Lenox’s experience.

Charles Finch, “An Extravagant Death”

The subtle wit is a pleasure, though, and is well-suited to evoking Victorian England and the American Gilded Age. Once the murder mystery starts to unfold, it’s absorbing enough, although there’s nothing aside from the costume it’s wearing to distinguish it.

It’s off to me that the full blurb bothers mentioning the two children, as they, and his wife, are at best peripheral. To be fair, the novel is part of a series, so the mentions of characters as though I should care about them, when nothing in this book has created any feelings for them, could be an explanation for an assumption that cursory references suffice.

Reading it as a standalone, though, I’m not engaged enough with the characters to want to spend anymore time with them than this one book. Perhaps I would feel differently if I started at the beginning, but it’s too late for that now. This is the kind of trip down memory lane that makes the past seem tedious.