The Inheritance, book five in Charles Finch’s well-written Victorian crime series, follows the activities of the detective agency run by gentleman sleuth Charles Lenox, along with his two partners, in a time when these newly formed partnerships are just beginning to gain credibility in the public mind. Sometimes it seems like a drawing room soap opera, all genteel furnishings and horse-drawn carriages; other times like a detailed and engrossing murder plot. As luck—and the author’s skill—would have it, it’s both.
For the inheritance in question, the “who” and “why” are standout questions. Who is the mysterious benefactor who has given not one, but two generous bequests to Lenox’s childhood friend Gerald Leigh? The first anonymous bequest enabled Leigh to attend the prestigious Harrow School as a boy; the second and most recent provides opportunities for Leigh to significantly advance his scientific career. Perhaps of greater significance, why were these legacies so mysteriously given? Leigh contacts his old friend Lenox after an absence of nearly 30 years to ask for help in finding answers.
As schoolboys, Lenox and Leigh pursued an exhaustive but ultimately unsuccessful quest to discover the identity of the legator. This time around there’s an urgency to unmask the friend—or enemy—who has offered the generous sum. A couple of members of London’s East End gangs have a deep interest in seeing that Leigh disappears for good, and Leigh’s solicitor is found dead before he can shed light on the charitable legacy.
While illustrating a warm picture of the men’s friendship as it grows and mellows through the years, Finch also provides a skillfully drawn social portrait of the late 1800s, without being ponderous or intruding on the course of the story. He adds tidbits of interest about the industry, progress and politics of the time, including breakthrough discoveries in the burgeoning field of microbiology. Leigh’s backstory draws a lively, sympathetic and often dryly humorous portrait of this uncommon scientist as he cuts a new path in an era where manners and protocol hold sway.
As this mystery unfolds, Finch conjures the palpable excitement of the day over such groundbreaking developments as the telegraph and electricity, as England—and the rest of the world—stand on the brink of great change, as the paths of the genteel and the common are poised to intersect and change the social contract forever.