The Arnifour Affair
(a Colin Pendragon mystery)
by Gregory Harris
Pub year: 2014
by Gregory Harris
Pub year: 2014
When a carriage bearing the Arnifour family crest - a vulture devouring a slaughtered lamb - arrives at the Kensington home of Colin Pendragon, it is an ominous beginning to a perplexing new case. Lady Arnifour's husband has been beaten to death and her niece, Elsbeth, left in a coma. Is the motive passion, revenge, or something even more sinister? Police suspicions have fallen on the groundskeeper and his son, yet the Earl's widow is convinced of their innocence. Even as Colin and his partner Ethan Pruitt delve into the muddy history of the Arnifour family, a young street urchin begs their help in finding his missing sister. Ethan regrettably familiar with London's underbelly, urges caution, yet Colin's interest is piqued. And in a search that wends from the squalid opium dens of the East End to the salons of Embassy Row, the truth about these seemingly disparate cases will prove disquieting, dangerous, and profoundly unexpected...
The most obvious thing about this book is that it is rather shameless Sherlock Holmes fanfiction. Not only is it about a genius detective and narrated by his trusty sidekick, but they also have to deal with their own inept inspector and come home to their long-suffering landlady/housekeeper. This can be frustrating because the story assumes the reader to be familiar with Holmsian conventions and sometimes doesn't explain itself, like the utterly random and unexplained appearance in the middle of the book of what I'm assuming is this version's take on the Baker Street Irregulars.
The story might be set in the Victorian period, but other than the trappings of setting and general plot it has very little to do with Victorian England. This book reads like a modern movie reinterpretation of a Holmes' style story. The setting is excellently drawn, but it is very obviously populated by actors working through their 21st century scripts, not people native to the Victorian era. The author is a former television and movie writer, and it shows. The language is very modern in places, often using phrases that would not have existed at the time period in question. Also, the actions of the characters are very modern, and very American; several characters physically assault each other at the drop of a hat, including Colin. Colin is also rather indiscreet about the nature of his relationship with Ethan in some of his comments. While it's nice to read a story where being gay isn't an issue, their relationship is still illegal at this time period. It is implied that the Inspector is aware, and it is never really explained why he doesn't arrest them. Colin's father is a highly placed government official which would offer him some protection, but, again, it is never discussed. It is made clear that the Inspector strongly dislikes Ethan especially, for various reasons, and Colin's father's position should not protect Ethan if the Inspector wanted to make life difficult for him.
When the novel opens, Ethan and Colin have been partners for 12 years. This was a really nice touch, as I find stories not about burgeoning romance to be far more interesting. They work together believably well for long time partners. Ethan's narration is surprisingly unobtrusive; for a first person narrator, he reveals very little of himself. His favorite subject is obviously Colin, and he only reveals bits of his own shadowy past as it relates to the situation at hand. Their relationship is also extremely understated; if you are bad at reading subtext, and you sneezed during the single line where Ethan joins Colin in the bath, then you could have entirely missed the fact that they are sexual partners as well as work partners. While I would have liked to see more of them interacting as a couple, it was refreshing that their being gay has nothing to do with the story.
There are two separate mysteries at the heart of the story. While the "whodunit" of the central mystery is pretty obvious (to my extremely jaded eyes), the "why" of it is so convoluted it still kept me entertained. The second story is interwoven in a way so that the two connect, but aren't really connected. One issue with the book is that, outside of the main characters, there are no redeemable people in this entire novel. The most difficult part of trying to find out who killed the lord is eliminating suspects, because he was, apparently, an extremely offensive person and his entire group of family and business relations are terrible people as well. Everyone involved in the plot is a prime example of at least one of the seven deadly sins and is involved in the sale and distribution of opium and/or human trafficking. While the characters depicted are a very limited pool, it's slightly depressing when not a single person exhibits a shred of human decency and, to an extent, even Colin and Ethan are only redeemed by the fact that they truly care about each other.
In the end I enjoyed the story for what it was- a modern reinterpretation of a Holmes style story- and, in some ways, in spite of itself. If you're interested, check it out, but I wouldn't call it a "must read." Personally, my interest is piqued for the rest of the series.