In Great Britain, the years immediately following WWI were a period of great change. New technologies were finding their way into people’s everyday lives. Women began to voice their dissatisfaction with being essentially second class citizens and unable to vote. And the men who survived serving in WWI returned to their homes scarred from the experience, both physically and psychologically. It is during this tumultuous time that debut author Christopher Huang sets his compelling new mystery: A Gentleman’s Murder.
The year is 1924, six years after Armistice Day and the end of WWI. Eric Peterkin has just become a full-fledged member of the Britannia Club, a gentlemen’s club for ex-servicemen that his family helped found several generations earlier. There has always been a Peterkin as a member of the Britannia Club. Eric’s father, a celebrated military officer, was a member in good standing until the day he died. But there was some resistance to granting Eric’s membership. Eric served in WWI, which was the only stated requirement for membership. He is also half-Chinese on his mother’s side. Some of the more established members of the Britannia have expressed concerns that Eric’s bi-racial heritage leaves him compromised and not the “right” type of man to be a member of the club.
When an established club member challenges Albert Benson, another new member of the club, to a wager, Eric is enlisted to act as the referee. As the appointed hour is reached to settle the score, Benson is found murdered. The club’s officers make a conscious effort to turn a blind eye to the death, stating that Scotland Yard will deal with it. But Eric observes the detective assigned to investigate the crime tampering with evidence and becomes suspicious of the entire incident. Who was this new member? What is his connection to the Britannia and its members? And how far will the killer go to keep Eric from uncovering the truth?
In his debut novel, Christopher Huang provides not only a top-notch mystery, but also a window into life in post-WWI London, from an unexpected, but welcome, perspective. In the early part of the 20th century, London was a city struggling to hold on to its established culture, resisting the changes that were being wrought by new technologies and a loosening of societal strictures. By allowing readers to experience London through Eric’s eyes, Huang throws a sharp, bright light on the rampant racism that was endemic in British culture at the time, while also highlighting some of the other reasons why change was so necessary. This includes the Suffrage Movement, and the class and societal structures set in place to keep some in and others out.
Huang also illustrates the conflict between the actual experiences of those who served in WWI, and the idealized and romantic lens through which writers, and sometimes former service men, characterized those same experiences. In addition, Huang illuminates the inequities of the British class system and how men of different social strata were treated after returning from the war. He also highlights how quickly any type of service that did not include combat was dismissed as cowardice, regardless of the necessity of the service being performed or the actual danger involved. Huang also emphasizes how everyone who served, regardless of what they did, was forever changed by the experience.
The mystery presented is top notch, filled with twists and turns, plenty of surprises and populated by memorable, it not always likeable characters. A Gentleman's Murder is a compelling and thoroughly engaging debut novel. The ending is left open for continued investigations to be undertaken by Eric Peterkin, and one can only hope that we'll get to join him when he does.