The story is set in 1873. Friction is high between England and France. English spies are being killed and war is looming. So Lenox, a member of the British parliament, goes on a secret mission to find out what’s happening. He leaves his new bride and longtime love, Lady Jane, and sets sail for the weeks-long voyage on board the Lucy headed to Egypt -- a spot where England is particularly anxious to keep its spy activities going. But concern over the fate of British spies soon takes a back seat.
Someone is murdering the officers on the ship, and the captain urges Lenox, a well-known investigator before he entered politics, to find the killer before morale plummets too low. No one is above suspicion, and tensions quickly build. Soon there are rumblings of mutiny by the crew.
Finch, an American who lives in England and studied at Oxford, obviously loves the 19th century. He provides a realistic look at the English navy of that period, when voyages were long, conditions could be harsh and death was always looming.
A high spot for both the voyagers and the readers comes in an amazing game of “Follow the Leader.” It caps an evening of singing and wagering on the contestants. The ship is brightly lit, the sails are slack and the crew enjoys a second ration of grog, saved for the event. “We’ll have to pray there aren’t pirates, of Frenchies,” one of the officers tells Lenox as the men enjoy their grog on the easy-to-spot ship.
The murder mystery that Finch weaves keeps readers guessing as Lenox must figure out how -- and why -- the killings are accomplished. The spy mystery is less satisfying, but overall, the book makes for an intriguing read on several levels.
“A Burial at Sea,” by Charles Finch, published by Minotaur Mary Foster AP