A woman is found dead in a dripping wet naval trunk on an islet in the Thames River in Victorian London. “The Woman in the Water,” the eleventh book in Charles Finch’s Agatha- and Nero-award-nominated Charles Lenox series, presents the beginning of Lenox’s career—an unlikely choice for a baronet’s son. Finch, who was recently awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle, also reviews books for USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. He talked to Newcity about his internationally successful series.
There seems to be quite an appetite for British mysteries, Victoriana and tales of toffs. Americans are entranced by shows such as “Downton Abbey” and “The Crown.” Why the fascination with aristocracy or a feudal order—especially in a republic?
I can only tell you my own experience, which is that at an early age—twelve, thirteen—I fell hard for P.G. Wodehouse and then in the next few years Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope. They were mainly writing about the gentry and there was a serenity to those worlds, even if the characters struggled. The long shadows on green lawns, the afternoon tea service, all of that, felt like a refuge when I was an angst-filled teenager. I’ve struggled in my series with that lie—that Victorian England was a refuge. Because it wasn’t. Finally, I realized that people need that. Especially in our present moment, alas.
Charles Lenox is an exceptionally mild-mannered protagonist. There are no fights, no gore, no sex, little bad language. Why has he struck a chord with readers?
Often the most popular protagonists in mystery series have real flaws, or old secrets or some mix of the two—from Sherlock Holmes to Lisbeth Salander. Lenox doesn’t. I think that fits with the world he inhabits, which is just a little bit touched by magic. He has plenty of money, good friends, a conscience, a lot of loyalties. It’s realistic to the period, but in a faintly dreamlike way. When I started writing the series, everything was CSI and blood and guts, and I wanted to write something quieter and maybe more innocent. People responded to Lenox’s essential decency right from the start.
Why a prequel?
I was ready to experiment with something new. I’d written ten mysteries about this universe of characters surrounding an amateur Victorian detective, Charles Lenox, and while it’s been wonderful fun, writing a series like that gets tricky. It’s a long voyage at close quarters. So I had to decide whether to stop writing the series or try to do something new with it—and I had all this material about Lenox as a young man (at the start of the series he’s nearing forty) and the idea got me excited in a new way.
What are your readers like and why are they reading this sort of mystery? Is there a great need to escape into another time?
Women are the majority of readers across every single kind of genre. Military history might be fifty-fifty, but everything else is seventy-thirty, eighty-twenty. If women stopped reading the publishing industry would collapse in a day. My readers are often female. With that said I don’t know anything else in particular that unites them. I often ask what my Facebook followers are reading and the range of answers is breathtaking. Which I love. I was lucky to be raised by women who read voraciously, high and low, and I know their taste shaped mine. I like writing female characters. And I feel very lucky to have female readers.
The criminal case runs almost secondary to the story of Lenox and his milieu. How do you work out the balance between character and plot? Sections are almost essayistic in their meanderings, digressions and questions: “What was a murder… theirs was the century in which murder had become a real notion.” What are your models?
Raymond Chandler said the perfect mystery novel would never be written, because the mind that can construct a perfect puzzle can’t construct a perfect world. My gift, or at least my taste, is for the world Charles Lenox lives in and that atmosphere is what drives me to write. Sometimes I enjoy writing the mystery and sometimes it’s nausea-inducing. Those digressions, meanderings—those are a treat for the writer. I try not to indulge in them too often, but they’re also part of me and part of the charm of the novel. You want a novel to tell you things incidentally, between moments, I think. That’s what makes it such a uniquely flexible medium.
You pay sharp attention to status, wealth and the layers of social class—never didactic, often sharply funny—such as Lady Jane Grey coming from “good stock,” Lord Brakesfield who was born to a butcher and made his money in soap, asides about newish Elizabethan earls and “Lenox wouldn’t have deigned to let Markham carry his cricket bat.” It’s an insider/outsider view —how did you get to those observations? Through your time at Oxford? How is the social commentary read by Americans?
You know, I make an occasional mistake in research, but I don’t really care as long as the tone of the Lenox books is correct—the atmosphere. The calibrations of class in England during that period, the 1860s and 1870s, were so fine that it really did matter, for instance, how old an earldom was. Jack Aubrey’s family, in Patrick O’Brian’s series of naval novels, which I think are the best historical fiction ever written, paid not to get a baronetcy. I try to play it straight-faced, so that the absurdity of it is there for the reader who wants to notice that, and the history of it is there for the reader who wants to notice that. I will say that when I was at Oxford you could still feel it. Everyone knew who had been at Eton, or wherever.
Similarly, the reader notices observations of poverty, inequality and the social immobility of the time—while Lenox is generally unjudgmental. Are you? Are such issues relevant again to contemporary audiences, and if so, why?
Well, I’ve struggled a lot with this. Almost nothing is more important to me than politics. In the middle of the series, when Lenox himself enters the world of politics, he takes on shoddy orphanages, people putting chalk in the milk to dilute it and all sorts of social problems. Ultimately most historical fiction is a truce between the reality of then and the reality of now. The average Victorian gentleman, even an enlightened one, held views that would be repugnant to us. I wanted Lenox to be at the very outer edge of liberal plausibility in that sense. But you can’t forget your reader. And I know these books are also escape pods. I try to respect that, and never foreground political issues too hectoringly.
I enjoy how you weave in little moments of social commentary—”A wife takes a vow to obey… There’s no vow for a mother.” It’s also a lovely portrait of closely bonded mother and son. Do you draw much from personal experience in the Lenox series? Also, the reactions of Lenox to his dying father, buttoned-up, wanting a different outcome, it is a larger portrait of being human that many whodunnits usually provide. What are your aims? Yes, I think if this were the start of a new series it would be a little strange that Lenox spends so much time with his mother, or worrying about his father. But my hope is that because people are invested in the character by now, those storylines will have more power. And for new readers, I hope he’s likable enough out of the gate that you don’t mind spending time with his family.
As for personal experience—I don’t know a writer who doesn’t draw on it. Someone said Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” was the greatest triumph in the history of novelistic realism, which strikes me as kind of true.
How do you get into the headspace of Victorian England when you live in Chicago?
I lived in England, which is the best cure I know of for Anglophilia. I wrote the first Lenox book before I’d ever set foot in the country, and a huge part of writing them now is trying to return myself to that Edenic feeling I had about it—country lanes, snow on thatched cottages, sweeping valleys. And I do travel there at least once every year or two.
Do your readers expect an unrealistic standard of accuracy to your fictional world?
I get emails you wouldn’t believe, which are four or five pages of single-spaced corrections across the entire series. I will bend geography and term times and that sort of thing to my story without much compunction—the tone is far and away the most important thing for me. I don’t want a note of that to be false. I try to be as accurate as possible historically, but ultimately it’s not my first priority. The only thing I truly regret is using the word sidewalk in one of the books. I’ve never heard the end of it.
How do you think about place—is it purely location or do you aim to do more?
I think what really thrills the inmost part of my soul is often nature, or scene. Which means I should probably be a poet instead of a novelist, but it shook out that I loved reading novels more than poetry, worst luck. I think place is often what brings a character back to himself or herself, where a character can pause and remember that they’re more than the scraps of experience they have in a day, or a week.
How have you changed as a writer?
Sheer experience really makes you a better writer. Ten thousand hours. It’s like learning to poach an egg or hit a backhand. For the first three or four books in the series (I think I’m too hard on them and people love them), all I can see is how poorly I plotted them out. It’s like being on the other side of a beautiful Persian carpet, to borrow an image from Edith Wharton. All you can see is the loose threads, and the faint imprint of what the carpet’s exterior side looks like. It’s the saddest part of being a writer, not being able to enjoy your own work.
What was it like to write a novel outside the series? Will there be more?
Yes! I wrote a super-personal book called “The Last Enchantments,” which is literary fiction. It took me years to write, and it was as naked as I’ve ever been, emotionally, as a writer. It’s about a group of students at Oxford, where I studied. Literary fiction is actually my first love; the Lenox novels are… is it bad to call them a day job? They are my second love. But the literary fiction takes much, much longer for me to write. And who knows, may be worse because of that.
You do your own creative work in the morning, then write reviews and do revisions in the afternoon. Is it becoming easier or more difficult to be a writer?
I try to stick to that schedule, yes. After an hour or two of writing I get noticeably worse. And then I try to have some lunch, take a walk, look at Twitter. And I might try to go back at it or I might just read, since you always need to feed the meter, or work on things that flex a different muscle—revision, criticism, which I write quite a lot of. I tend to work in my study or if I get tired of sitting there at my (this is a terrible admission) Starbucks, here on Southport Corridor.
Every day it gets harder to be a writer. I want to quit. You just recognize more and more of what’s bad or wrong about books, and feel less and less freedom because of that. My hope as I enter my late thirties is that I’ll be able to come through the other side and regain the spontaneity I had when I was twenty. But I don’t know. Thomas Mann said writers are people for whom writing is harder than other people.
“The Woman in the Water”
By Charles Finch
Minotaur Books, 304 pages, $25.99
Charles Finch launches his book on February 20 at 7pm at Volumes Bookcafe, 1474 North Milwaukee, (773)697-8066.