The idea of writing a prequel is less than adored in many circles and fandoms, and there are a wide assortment of generally disliked examples. With The Last Passenger Charles Finch proves that one can write a good end to a prequel trilogy. His historical mystery series gains an interesting element in this book, and the reader will certainly find that .
Specifically, The Last Passenger is the last of the stories detailing the origins of one Charles Lenox, a younger son of minor British nobility who has taken a keen interest in crime and detective work. He follows a logical train of reasoning, and often gives a certain amount of kudos and credit to a legacy officer at the Yard because he is much more interested in the mysteries themselves. The fact that this officer is depicted as relatively incompetent is a little bit of fuel added to the proverbial fire.
In basic form the book is very much like a classic gentleman detective novel, of the Campion or Peter Wimsey variety. One of the chief differences is that the writer is much more obviously aware of the historical setting than a novel written during the era might be.
Setting can be a key factor in a mystery novel, and Charles Finch uses his extremely well. The book takes place in 1855, and one really cannot stress enough the importance of that fact. While our protagonst and many of his friends are forward thinking for the time, they nonetheless represent very much people a century and a half in the past.
To illustrate this point, the problem of American slavery is still in full swing, and indeed, the murdered parties are related to the Abolitionist movement and its attempt to get support from the highest echelons of British society. There is a nice history given of antislavery legislation and how the Quakers helped to push for it. These historical events and figures are lauded, yet the way the Americans got around this ban are discussed in detail. Further, in spite of his attempts, Charles finds more than a few upper-class individuals indifference to the entire concept of intervening to help enslaved individuals. Even men who have little or nothing to gain from keeping the institution around seem to simply not care. The dialog and interactions are structured in such a way that the overall tone does not change, helping to further a reader’s feeling that these individuals simply do not care. It is a good decision to make clear the situation by showing examples of it, however chances are that it might bother some readers not prepared for a relatively accurate historical take upon the matter.
The aftermath of slavery is shown, with narratives of survivors providing their viewpoints, and the question of bitterness at the society as a whole coming clearly into play. The idea of a man having his own morality is interesting to Charles Lennox, with the idea simultaneously bothering him and yet evoking is certain degree of sympathy. His lack of understanding in regard to the difficulties women face in the mid-nineteenth century is also notable. Charles respects intelligent women, but finds himself unable to comprehend a woman marrying for reasons other than love. He is naive in this prospect, and pitiably so as he finds himself more stunned than angry at the situation.
Even aside from the politics, the time is very well Illustrated, right down to the lead casually manipulating a body to illustrate his points related to a death, disturbing the crime scene by modern standards in the process. This does allow him to show an important fact he discovered; however in contemporary stories such information would be found after the body was moved, or based on the way the clothes might already be disheveled. It’s a fairly accurate depiction of earlier forms of detective work, with all of their flaws, and a knowledgeable mystery reader will greatly appreciate that little touch of authenticity.
Going into this volume with little familiarity about the series overall, it was an entertaining and well constructed historical mystery. The question of how much of the franchise one needs to know is moot. The story works quite well on its own, characters are introduced with enough detail that a reader can easily understand their place in the narrative. Charles is sympathetic, and a modern enough character for most readers without seeming downright out of place in comparison to the world around him. While the character’s future can be guessed from this volume, it’s not obvious to the degree that an unfamiliar reader feels they are being spoken down to. Instead these merely seemed extensions of the existing situation, and various individuals’ thoughts about it.
Charles already has a large and noticeable support Network. These include a faithful Butler, a sister-in-law who tries to fix him up with a number of people romantically, a number of members of the London police whom he is on good terms with, and various upper-class contacts. He is more than understanding with them, working to keep good relations even as he has to deal with various social and mystery related obstacles and annoyances. A love interest is introduced, and the reader gets to experience confusion relating to romantic attraction on the part of a protagonist who generally disdains such.
This was a quite enjoyable volume, featuring a sympathetic character who seems a man of his time and fiercely moral. The core mystery moves along slowly, gaining traction through the social importance of the individuals being killed and the likability of the protagonist. The mystery itself holds together extremely well, with some elements being predictable insofar as the themes indicate them. This book is easy to recommend to fans of the gentleman detective and to fans of the historical mystery genre as a whole. While familiarity with the other prequel books, or the series in its entirety, might be useful they are certainly not necessary.