I have always loved learning about the origin of words or phrases. I also enjoy witty detective novels, especially if I can find a character who loves word play as I do. In Charles Finch’s most recent novel An Extravagant Death, Finch takes his Victorian sleuth from London to Newport, Rhode Island to solve the murder of a young debutante. While the murderer is easy to spot by anyone who reads a lot of murder mysteries, the joy in this book comes from the observations of New York and Newport society when a flood of newly rich industrial titans built ostentatious homes on a peninsula in New England. As a British observer, Charles Lenox, our investigator, sees how strange the jockeying for position seems in a society new to the idea of old and new money.
My favorite part of the novel, however, comes in the several instances that Lenox tries to entertain someone with the etymology of a word. In one case, he mentions the origin of backlog to someone who fails to either understand or be amused by his explanation.
Later he tells the reader that shrapnel was named after Lt. Henry Schrapnel who invented a cannonball filled with small lead balls which shattered on contact sending shards of hot metal into enemy lines. Was this necessary in the plot? Not at all, but this continues to help us see Lenox’ wit though few of his America contacts appreciate it.
So if you, as a very nerdy high school student like me, used to settle in with the Oxford English Dictionary on rainy days, you might enjoy meeting Charles Lenox in Charles Finch’s tales.