A Gentleman’s Murder is the debut novel of Singaporean-born Christopher Huang. His smart and dogged amautuer slueth is Eric Peterkin. Eric Peterkin, born in Britain to a British father and Chinese mother, is known as a “half-caste” and is barely tolerated in society, let alone at the prestigious Britannia Club, a gentleman’s club founded and tended faithfully through the generations by his Peterkin forefathers. The Peterkin name weighs heavily on Eric’s shoulders as he often navigates icy relationships with his fellow club members during the yellow peril. He often wishes to pass for Caucasians like his fun-loving and famous sister, Penny Peterkin. Having made his way professionally as a manuscript reader for a prestigious London magazine, he turns his attention to cementing his place at the Britannia Club and carrying forward the Peterkin name.
- Lieutenant Eric Peterkin: Ex-Lieutenant of the British Army and member of the prestigious Britannia Club. He is investigating the death of a fellow Britannia Club member,
- Albert Benson: A stretcher bearer during The Great War. He lives with his wife at Sotheby Manor. He is found murdered in the vault of the Britannia Club.
- Second Lieutenant Oliver Saxon: British codebreaker. Offers to marry Emily Ang.
- Captain Mortimor Wolfe: Three-time escapee of German soldiers.
- Captain Edward Aldershott: Britannia Club President.
- Charles Parker: Ex-serviceman and currently the detective investigating the death of Albert Benson. His medical file was in Albert Benson’s private box in the vault of the Britannia Club.
- Patrick Norris: Soldier in the same company as Saxon and Wolfe.
On a cold autumnal night in 1924, Eric Peterkin retires to the Britannia Club to read his latest stack of manuscripts and enjoy a roaring fire and a well-made meal. Despite the antagonistic relationship with his fellow club members, he is grateful to carry the legacy of being a fellow soldier in arms to the empire like his ancestors and his fellow Britannia patrons. That night a new member, Albert Benson, is introduced to Peterkin and Wolfe. Eric Peterkin warmly invites Benson to sit with him and Wolfe and soon discovers the pair know each other from a convalescent stay at Sotheby Manor after both sustained injuries at Flanders. Benson recounts his time at Flanders as a stretcher-bearer. Peterkin is surprised that Benson was admitted to the Britannia Club since it is exclusively for ex-soldiers, but he continues to play cards and chat with Benson amiably. When Peterkin goes to the bar, he is rudely glared at by fellow Britannia member Saxon who is tirelessly working. When Peterkin returns with the drinks, he finds Benson and Wolfe discussing the vault where members can have a box to store their most precious items. Peterkin says that he doesn’t have a box but wishes to keep his manuscripts instead of constantly bringing them back and forth to the club and is taken aback that Benson already has a box. Wolfe, known for his stealthy ability to get behind enemy lines during the war, proffers that he could easily break into the vault and steal an item from Benson’s box by noon tomorrow. Aldershott overhears this pronouncement and asks Wolfe to make good on his claim to which Benson tentatively agrees. Benson takes Peterkin to his box, which holds four items: a hypodermic needle kit, a pair of surgical scissors, a picture of his wife, Helen, and the medical report of someone named Horatio Parker. Peterkin is utterly confounded by these items and asks Benson why he is locking them away. Benson cryptically replies that they are needed to right a devastating wrong. Unable to elicit further information from Benson, Peterkin and Benson make their way back to Aldershott and Wolfe. With Peterkin as a witness and reference, they bid ado until tomorrow to see if Wolfe can break into the vault and steal one of the four items. A little before noon Wolfe strolls into the club’s dining area, holding the surgical scissors. While waiting for Benson to arrive, Wolfe, Aldershott, and Peterkin discuss Benson’s service at Flanders and the items in his box. Peterkin quips that he would have stolen the photograph of Helen or the medical report of Horatio Parker because they would be easier to hide. Wolfe remarks that neither of those items was in the box when he burgled it. All of them grow uneasy as time passes, and Benson still fails to appear. Peterkin wishes to see if anything else is missing from Benson’s box, and they troop downstairs to the vault. Once the vault door is opened, they find Benson lying dead in a pool of blood with a penknife on his neck.
When the police are called, Peterkin is disturbed to learn that the man investigating the death of Benson is Horatio Parker- the same man named in the medical report missing from Benson’s box in the vault. Peterkin watches Parker closely and sees him surreptitiously remove the photograph of a woman from Benson’s lodgings at the Britannia. Peterkin is immediately on guard because the picture isn’t one of Benson’s wife, Helen, but of a young beautiful Chinese woman. When Parker questions Peterkin about Benson’s death, Peterkin starts interrogating Parker about the photograph he removed and his relationship with the deceased. Incensed, Parker throws Peterkin out of the Britannia Club and tells him to mind his place.
Several days later, still brooding about how Parker treated him at the Britannia Club, he complains bitterly to his sister Penny, who is entirely unsympathetic. Peterkin resolves to go to Sotheby Manor to investigate Parker’s connection to Benson. There he finds that Benson also knew Saxon, Wolfe, and Parker. He also recognizes the missing woman from another photograph as Emily Ang.
Peterkin soon learns from Benson’s widow, Helen, that Benson had been in love with Emily Ang before she disappeared. Peterkin now understands that Emily’s disappearance must be the great wrong that Benson wanted to correct before he was brutally murdered. Peterkin begins searching for Emily Ang and discovers that she is the adopted sister of Aldershott’s wife, who is also Saxon’s cousin. As a tangled web of loyalties reveals itself, Peterkin realizes whoever killed Emily and Benson is a fellow soldier in arms who will stop at nothing to keep old secrets buried.
When Emily Ang is murdered, she is pregnant by an unknown man. Many theories swirl around Ang for the duration of the novel. Firstly, was she raped by the head of the hospital and then disposed of due to her pregnancy? Secondly, was she embarrassed by being an unwed mother, by either Saxon or Benson, and fled? Thirdly, Did the secretive Horatio Parker kill her for an unknown reason? These assumptions and several more lead Peterkin to discover if she is merely missing or deceased. As Peterkin combs through old newspapers, he finds clippings that he believes describe Ang’s burial site. Having pieced together that Ang was killed, he then reasons Benson was killed to prevent him from revealing who killed Ang. Despite his growing suspicions that Parker is at the heart of the mystery, Wolfe and Saxon agree with Parker’s discharge papers that Parker had left Sotheby Manor before Ang was killed. Their alibis for Parker crumble when Peterkin finds a photograph of Helen Benson’s birthday where Parker is present and realizes this is the same day Ang disappeared. When Helen Benson is killed in a fire at her home, Sotheby Manor, Peterkin knows that whatever happened that day at Sotheby Manor holds the key to three deaths.
This mystery is a ponderous referendum on The Great War and how soldiers are treated when they return home. All of the soldiers at the Britannia Club are united by their service and cope with their pasts differently. Wolfe stays calm, Norris is rakishly fun, Parker works to uphold the honor of the Victoria Cross given to him, and Peterkin wants to leave his past in the trenches of Flanders. The hard truth is even those that survive the war don’t come home. As Peterkin investigates the death of Chinese Nurse Emily Ang, he realizes how easily Asian women are tossed aside when against the machinations of white English society. As he follows the murderer of Albert Benson into the slums where most Chinese people live, he is struck by how removed he is from that life- when he can’t even ask for directions in Chinese. Eric Peterkin’s mother survived by assimilating and passing down very little of her language and cultural heritage to her children. It’s a complex and painful realization for Peterkin that he is different and privileged- just not as elite as others. He finds a connection with Albert Benson and later Emily Ang between places of not being quite right. Their deaths push Peterkin to accept that he has been negligent in taking care of the soldiers that served under him when returning from war and that he easily ignores his Chinese roots in favor of being accepted by his peers.
This novel has a lot to unpack, and the mystery illuminates just how good of an author Christopher Huang is because it serves the story’s theme without sacrificing being a good mystery. As Eric Peterkin learns more about his suspects, everything is turned on its head, repeatedly, until the murderer can only be one person. The ride to find out about the murder is high-octane. I suspected everyone at least once and figured out the killer only slightly before Peterkin. I highly recommend A Gentleman’s Murder by Christopher Huang and am anxiously awaiting the publication of his next novel, Unnatural Ends, in 2023.
Suppose you’re a fan of golden-age mysteries centered on ex-soldiers. In that case, I recommend: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers or Murder in Montparnasse by Kerry Greenwood.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club features Lord Peter Wimsey at his club when old General Fentiman is found dead before a great roaring fire. It looks like he died of old age, but how did his leg move freely after rigor mortis set in? When his General Fentiman’s sister also dies within 24 hours and her will is contested, Lord Peter Wimsey finds there might be more to this Armistice Day mystery than at first blush.
Seven soldiers witness a murder in Paris in 1918 as they return home to Australia at the end of the Great War. Several years later someone is killing them off to keep them for telling the police what they saw. Phryne Fisher must find this calculated killer before her hired men, Bert and Cec, are bumped off next, in Murder in Montparnasse.