“Fiction readers who crush on blue-blooded British detectives will fall hard for Victorian-era sleuth Charles Lenox." The Washington Post
From the critically acclaimed and USA Today bestselling author Charles Finch comes The Vanishing Man, a prequel to his Charles Lenox Victorian series, in which the theft of an antique painting sends Detective Lenox on a hunt for a criminal mastermind.
London, 1853: Having earned some renown by solving a case that baffled Scotland Yard, young Charles Lenox is called upon by the Duke of Dorset, one of England’s most revered noblemen, for help. A painting of the Duke’s great-grandfather has been stolen from his private study. But the Duke’s concern is not for his ancestor’s portrait; hiding in plain sight nearby is another painting of infinitely more value, one that holds the key to one of the country’s most famous and best-kept secrets.
Dorset believes the thieves took the wrong painting and may return when they realize their errorand when his fears result in murder, Lenox must act quickly to unravel the mystery behind both paintings before tragedy can strike again. As the Dorset family closes ranks to protect its reputation, Lenox uncovers a dark secret that could expose them to unimaginable scandaland reveals the existence of an artifact, priceless beyond measure, for which the family is willing to risk anything to keep hidden.
In this intricately plotted prequel to the Charles Lenox mysteries, the young detective risks his potential careerand his reputation in high societyas he hunts for a criminal mastermind.
About the Author
Charles Finch is the USA Today bestselling author of the Charles Lenox mysteries, including The Woman in the Water (February 2018). His first contemporary novel, The Last Enchantments, is also available from St. Martin's Press. Finch received the 2017 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. His essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Washington Post, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
Once a month or so, just to keep his hand in the game, Charles Lenox liked to go shopping with his friend Lady Jane Grey.
On this occasion it was a warm, windy day in early June of 1853, quiet, the gently sunny hour of late morning before the clerks would fill the streets on their way to take lunch. The two friends were next-door neighbors on tiny Hampden Lane, in the heart of London, and he was waiting on her steps at ten o'clock precisely. At five past, she came out, smiling and apologizing.
They left, eventually turning up Brook Street and walking past the little string of streets that ran parallel to their own, talking.
"Why are you checking your watch every ten seconds?" she asked after they had gone about halfway.
"Oh! I'm sorry," said Lenox. "I've an appointment at noon."
"I hope it's with someone you've hired to teach you better manners."
"The joke's on you, because it's with a duke."
"The worst-mannered wretch I ever met was a duke," Lady Jane said. As they crossed Binney Street, Lenox's eyes stayed for an extra moment on a man painting an iron fence with a fresh coat of black paint, whistling happily to himself. "Which one is it?" she asked.
"Out of discretion I cannot say."
"I call that disagreeable."
Lenox smiled. "It's a case."
She turned her gaze on him. It had been a long drought since his last case — more than a month. "Is it? I see."
Though both considered themselves tenured veterans of London now, anyone observing them would have seen two very young people, as young and resilient as the summer day. Lenox was a tall, slender, straight-backed young bachelor of twenty-six, bearing a gentlemanly appearance, and with, whatever Lady Jane said, a courteous manner. He was dressed in a dark suit, hands often behind his back, with hazel eyes and a short hazel beard. There was something measuring and curious in his face. As for Lady Jane, she was five years his junior, a plain, pretty woman of twenty-one, though she had been married for fully a tenth of those living days, which gave her some obscure right to self-regard for her own maturity. This told in her posture, perhaps. She had soft, dark curling hair; today she wore a light blue dress, with boots of a tan color just visible beneath its hem.
They had grown up in the same part of the countryside, though until he had moved to London, Lenox had never considered her part of his generation. By the time he'd noticed she was, Lady Jane had been engaged.
They neared New Bond Street, where the shops began, as the church clocks chimed the quarter hour.
In truth it was not altogether customary that she went shopping quite so often as she did — in most households like Lady Jane's, the task would have fallen to a maid — but it was one of the things that she liked, and Lenox liked it for that reason.
The meeting at noon was continually on his mind, even as they walked and spoke. Lenox was a private ... well, what word had he settled on! Investigator? Detective? It was a new endeavor yet. Three years could count as new, when the field was one of your own rough-and-ready invention, and when success had been tantalizingly close at moments but remained mostly elusive.
A duke might well bring it close enough to hold with two hands.
This intersection was vastly busier than their peaceful street. She stopped at the corner and looked at a list. After she had been studying for a moment, he said, "What do you need today?"
"Are you going to bother me with questions the whole time?" she said, trying to decipher, he could tell from many years of knowing her, her own handwriting.
She looked up and smiled. She pointed to the window next to which they were standing. It was a barber's. "Shall we buy you some mustache grease?" "Oh, no," he said, looking at the sign that had inspired the question. "I make my own."
"Yes. Though it puts you in the way of quite a lot of bear hunting."
"You are in a very amusing mood, I suppose, Charles. There — I've made it out. Let's go to the greengrocer's first."
He bowed. "Just as you please, my lady."
They made their way carefully down New Bond Street, stopping in at every third or fourth shop. Jane was very canny, while Lenox shopped almost at random; at the confectioner, as she was remonstrating with Mr. Pearson over the price of an order of six dozen marzipan cakes she wanted for a garden party she was having, Lenox decided with little prompting to order a cake to be sent to Lady Berryman, who had invited him to the country for August.
"That reminds me," Jane said to the baker. "I have an odd request. Could I order an eggless cake from you? Vanilla. It's for my husband's aunt. I wrote down the recipe she gave me. She's lord-terrified of eggs, I'm afraid."
"Why on earth?" said the baker, so moved by this horrible information that he forgot himself.
"Can you think I have asked her, Mr. Pearson?"
"Blimey," he said. Then amended himself. "Blimey, my lady."
She raised her eyebrows. "I know. Imagine being married to her."
"I couldn't," said Pearson fervently, which was true for several different reasons.
Lenox was just about to interject that he knew the lady in question, a larger person, and that he would stand on his head if she had ever refused a dessert in her life. But as he was about to speak, Jane threw him a look, and he knew to keep mum.
In the street again, after they'd gone, she explained that she had read a recipe for an eggless cake from Germany and wanted to try it, but didn't dare insult the baker.
"You could have made it at home."
"No — no. He has the lightest hand in London, Mr. Pearson," she said. "Speaking of which, how is Lancelot?"
He made an irritated face at her, and she laughed. Lancelot was a young cousin of Lenox's on half-term from Eton and therefore in the city for two weeks of what his family had optimistically called seasoning. "I would prefer not to discuss it."
"Does he still want to come with you on a case?"
"Has he gotten you with the peashooter again?"
"Please leave me in peace."
They proceeded past the cobblers, then the book stall — BACK IN STOCK, EXCLUSIVELY IN ALL OF LONDON, Uncle Tom's Cabin! a sign declared excitedly — before arriving at the dressmaker. Here Lady Jane went inside alone to have a word, as Lenox skulked outside, feeling like a schoolboy. Soon, though, he was meditating on the upcoming meeting.
The Duke of Dorset!
He thought of the title with a tightening in his stomach, and then of the letter that contained the entirety of his knowledge of the case thus far: His Grace has discovered that a possession upon which he places high value is missing. He would appreciate your advice regarding its potential recovery.
He checked his watch and saw that it was ten past eleven. They were near the end of their ramble, and he felt a quick flicker of melancholy. When he was with Lady Jane, he generally forgot himself; just at the moment, a welcome oblivion.
If Lenox's first year in London after moving down from Oxford had been characterized by his tenacious, mostly fruitless search for work as a detective, the subsequent eighteen months had been more complex and difficult. In part it was still to do with the scorn his profession drew from his peers, as they advanced steadily onward in their fields — and in part it was to do with the lonely feeling that all around him his friends were marrying, having children even, while he was still by himself.
But most of all, of course, it had to do with the death of his father. At first he had borne up under this misfortune well, he thought. Fathers were supposed to die before their children, he supposed, and he knew any number of friends who had been orphaned long ago. But recently, especially in the last six months, his grief had shown itself in odd, unexpected ways. He found himself losing minutes at a time on train platforms and in gardens, thinking; he found himself dreaming of his childhood.
Perhaps it had to do with the fact that they had never been especially close. He had loved and revered his father, but the easier friendship had been with his mother. Had he assumed there would be time, later on in life, for their relationship to grow? His father had been only sixty-one when he died; for his second son, it had been, surprisingly, not as if some venerable building in London disappeared, which was what he had always imagined — Parliament, for instance — but as if London itself had.
This past year he felt the loss more keenly with each month, not less, and he was sure that was unnatural. For the first time in his life, he woke each morning with a sense of dejection — a sense that, well, here was another day to be gotten through — rather than happiness.CHAPTER 2
Of all people, Lady Jane perhaps sensed her friend's state of mind most delicately. When she came out of the dressmaker's, a look that was difficult to read passed across her face, as if she knew where his thoughts had turned.
"Everything acceptable?" he asked cheerfully.
"Yes, they're still making dresses."
They resumed their stroll. A few shops down the long boulevard, they passed the optician. "I really would like a barometer above anything," Lenox said longingly, pausing before a beautiful brass one in the optician's window. "Ah, well."
"What a waste of money it would be," she said.
"They say it is good to have friends who support one's interests," Lenox replied, studying the barometer.
"You are dead in the center of the largest city on earth. When was the last time you even saw a ship?"
"Ha! There you're going to feel foolish, because I see them nearly every day on the Thames."
"From a cab." She pulled his arm. "Let's go, you can't be late to your duke."
They proceeded down New Bond, talking of this and that. It seemed Lady Jane had a kind word for every person they passed, and it occurred to Lenox that just as he had been struggling to find his feet in his profession, she had perhaps felt something like an impostor in her first years in London — in the very earliest days of her grand marriage, to an earl's first son. Perhaps this was why she shopped for herself; perhaps it gave her a sense of intimacy with their leafy, occasionally intimidating London neighborhood, making a community of it. Like him, she belonged, from the first, to a small place, a village. Now she had made a small place here, in the biggest place. A village of its own.
They spent some time discussing the duke. A duke, after all! The whole of the United Kingdom, in its population of thirty million, possessed just twenty-eight such creatures. The least of them was a figure of overpowering consequence. Yet even among their rank were finer gradients, and the man Lenox was shortly to see held one of the three or four greatest dukedoms.
Theirs was the highest tier of the nobility, the dukes, first in the land beneath the royal family. Not only that, but in their innermost souls not a few dukes and duchesses would have pointed to their lineage (the title of "duke" had come into existence in 1337) and claimed a greater stake in the leadership of Britain than the come-lately family currently chattering around the throne in German accents.
After them, it went so: first the marquesses, thirty-five of these, and their wives, the marchionesses. Then earls — and there it became complicated, because the title of "earl" was nearly oldest of all, originating as long ago as the year 600, historians said, when each shire of England had a jarl (Norse for "noble warrior"), which was the reason that in England each earl was still entitled to a small crown: a coronet.
Many earls in England (including Lady Jane's father, Lord Houghton) would not have admitted for a second to being beneath a duke. Their wives were called countesses, because nobody had ever thought to name them earlesses — which had struck many schoolboys memorizing these facts as extremely stupid indeed.
Thereafter it got greatly simpler. Viscounts were next, nearly a hundred of these, common as church mice, the poor devils. Finally came barons, last rank in the peerage.
"And there you'll be, at the very top of the heap," said Jane.
"I doubt he'll make me a duke there on the spot," Lenox said.
"Probably just a baron or something."
"I do wonder what he wants. A possession upon which he places high value. I only hope it's not his lucky kilt, or something like that."
Lady Jane laughed. "And the laundress has lost it, yes. I could see that being the calamity, I fear."
Lenox himself held none of these titles. Just to confuse things, there was still one title left over, and it was here that he entered the picture: Baronets were called "sir," as Lenox's older brother, Sir Edmund, had now been in the eighteen months since their father's death.
A knight was also called "sir," but his children couldn't inherit the title. It belonged to a sole person and died with him, a great writer, say, or artist, or dear intimate of the Queen's ninth-favorite cousin.
All of these gentry taken together with their families numbered not more than ten thousand, but Lenox, as the second son even of a very old, landed, and honored baronetcy, was as far down the slopes of the mountain of aristocracy from the Duke of Dorset as the thirty-millionth Briton, drunk in a ditch, was from Lenox himself.
It was an absurd system. Almost nobody believed in it as more than a matter of chance, except for the very old aunts and uncles who kept the genealogies. Yet all of them also, somehow, believed in it implicitly.
Strange to be an Englishman, an Englishwoman.
At last they reached the turn of New Bond Street, where they saw the most dignified shop in the whole row, housed inside a handsome stone building with purple wisteria climbing its white face. This was the leecher's — the best leecher in town, people generally agreed, where they boxed the living leeches in boxes bound with blue ribbon, as if they were marzipan cakes themselves.
Despite this enticement, Lenox and Lady passed by the leecher's in favor of their own favorite shop, which stood just around the corner, behind a short porch made of plain, unsanded boards. Over the door it said nothing but BERGSON in plain white stenciled lettering.
They pushed the door open and saw Bergson himself in a chair behind a broad counter, looking infernally grumpy and making absolutely no movement to rise and greet them. A duke or an earl or a murderer or anyone on God's green earth could have walked in and his reaction would have been the same.
He was a silent old Swede, Bergson, who had spent most of his life in America and then, for reasons known only to himself, come to London and set up an exact replica of the shop he had once owned in the Wisconsin territory.
An exact replica, truly exact, which meant that there were items of no conceivable use to a Londoner, like two-hundred-pound bags of cornmeal (enough to last a long cabin winter, in lesser demand here), mixed with those of delightful novelty and tireless fascination.
"Look!" said Jane, handling a necklace with a large polished turquoise at the end of two rubbed-leather ropes. "These are the fashion right now, Duch says."
Lenox looked at it doubtfully, then at the stone-faced Bergson, who, in bib overalls of a denim that was either very dark or had never been washed, did not look even adjacent to the world of fashion. Some people said he had lost his whole family to a fever, others that that he had left America when Wisconsin had become a state five years before, because he had murdered another man over a plot of property once and could not survive a land with laws.
Lenox suspected him simply of being shrewd; this was one of the most popular shops in London, its stock replenished just often enough to be endlessly fascinating.
Bergson was not telling — he barely deigned to speak to his customers — but he did sell Charles and Jane a variety of items: bars of pine soap, bags of sifted brown sugar, rough lumps of silver, a woven fishing creel that Lenox thought he might give his brother, Edmund. Lady Jane bought a handsome leather cap for her husband, who was due back from India with his troops in August. Lenox considered a tinderbox before buying Lancelot an arrowhead, silvered with mica.
"See, you do like having Lancelot," said Lady Jane as they left.
"In fact I do not, but I love Eustacia very dearly." This was Lancelot's mother, Lenox's first cousin. "As for Lancelot, he'll slit my neck with this arrowhead tonight."
She mulled this over. "Better than the tinderbox, then, all things considered, since our houses are side by side. Look, it's eleven forty, Charles. You had better go and see about your duke."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Vanishing Man"
Copyright © 2019 Charles Finch.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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