Written by Karen Charlton — Some historical crime novels are strong on history and light on storyline, others give the plot free rein and let historical context take a back seat. The best kind have a healthy balance between the two, and Karen Charlton’s Detective Lavender series is a shining example of this.
The Sculthorpe Murder is the third novel to feature Charlton’s Bow Street detective and the confirmed bachelor is planning his wedding to the delectable Dona Magdalena. But such plans are of little importance to Lavender when his services are urgently required elsewhere. There’s been a nasty murder in Northamptonshire, and the dashing detective and his trusty sidekick Constable Ned Woods are soon rattling around in a stagecoach on the way to the scene of the crime. The bill for their services is being footed by Dowager Countess Fitzwilliam of Rockingham Castle, who is keen to be kept informed of their progress, but appears reluctant to reveal her reasons for having such a close connection to the murder victim, 86-year-old William Sculthorpe.
A recent widower, Sculthorpe had lived in the area for just three years and in that time he, his wife and son had kept themselves to themselves. It was rumoured that the old man was rich, and there are certainly signs of a robbery at his home. At first glance, it appears Sculthorpe was brutally attacked by a notorious gang who were looking for his fortune. But as Lavender knows only too well, first glances can be deceptive – the cue for a brain-teasing mystery that will keep you on the alert right up to the finely drawn, Agatha Christie-esque denouement.
The book is set in 1810 and Charlton knows the period well. She uses the fact that Bow Street detectives like Lavender were willingly hired out to solve tricky crimes in other parts of the country to her advantage – why should we stick to London when there are myriad other areas to explore? It’s clear that much research has gone into the setting of this book, and canals and canal folk are right there at the heart of the action, which culminates in an explosive chapter that fair leaps off the page.
I love the way this author weaves fact with fiction to create a tale well worth the telling. Lavender himself is based on a Bow Street detective whose skill in solving tricky cases became well known, and the murder of William Sculthorpe is based on a real case too, although much artistic licence is employed here in the pursuit of a good, old fashioned mystery yarn.
Lavender and Woods fans will enjoy the further development of these characters, and some juicy back story revelations too, but first timers will also find the story to their satisfaction. Apart from the rock-solid settings this author is also a dab hand at moulding utterly engaging supporting characters. There’s mousy Dorothy Bennett and her bedbound mother, the utterly terrifying Dowager Duchess, slutty Susie Dicken and odious Caleb Liquorish to name a few. Best of all is William’s son, Billy Sculthorpe. A witness to the assault on his father, Billy is a lovely, unusual character, whose Down’s syndrome is handled sensitively by this author.
I’ve read all of Karen Charlton’s previous novels and I think this is the best yet. Fans of historical crime will surely enjoy this trip back to the early days of the 19th century and if you’re looking for a break from brash, technology-filled, present day crime fiction the Lavender series is well worth a look.
Thomas and Mercer
CFL Rating: 5 Stars