I hadn't heard of Katharine McMahon before, but this title came up in one of those "What I'm reading this summer" newspaper features, in which well-known authors and others tell you what's on their summer reading lists, and it sounded interesting, even though I'm not a particular fan of historical fiction. A previous McMahon novel, The Rose of Sebastopol, was a Richard and Judy recommendation, but don't let that put you off, because The Crimson Rooms is a cracker.
The hardback cover, featuring a glossy woman in a red (crimson, I suppose) dress, isn't really representative of the content, although perhaps designed to appeal to those in search of a glamorous historical read. Which this isn't, particularly. It's a detective story, really, but with an unusual protagonist and an interesting context.
It's 1924, and Evelyn Gifford, approaching thirty, lives in Maida Vale, London with her widowed mother and elderly aunt. It's not a happy household, with all three mourning the death of Evelyn's brother, James, in the First World War, and more recently that of Evelyn's father. Despite her grief for her brother in particular, Evelyn has a great and unfashionable (for a woman of the 1920s) drive towards independence and self-determination, and has managed both to train as a lawyer - at a time when hardly any women did so - and get herself taken on as an articled clerk by the equally independently-minded solicitor, Daniel Breen.
It's quite hard to imagine nowadays, but in 1924 - just a few generations ago - the mere idea that a woman could become a lawyer was generally greeted with either hilarity or outrage. While Evelyn is a fictional character, some of the minor characters around her, such as the pioneering Carrie Morrison, are real, and the novel seems to be a fairly realistic portrayal of legal life at that time. Evelyn's struggles to be taken seriously and represent her clients adequately, given the forces ranged against her, make fascinating reading.
Two cases in which Evelyn is involved are woven through the story - that of Stephen Wheeler, accused of murdering his wife, and the case of Leah Marchant, charged with stealing her own baby. The former case is the more mysterious, and does keep you guessing until the end - my theory about "whodunnit and why" turned out to be entirely wrong! - while in representing Leah, Evelyn has to face discrimination and mistrust not only from the court system but from her own client.
Meanwhile, the Gifford family's world is turned upside down once more by the arrival, literally on the doorstep late at night, of a Canadian young woman accompanied by a six-year-old boy who is, she claims, the son of the late James Gifford, Evelyn's brother. The unpredictable Meredith quickly inveigles her way into family life, causing untold disruption not only to everyone's peace of mind but also to their memories of James, even while they quickly grow to love the boy, Edmund.
Finally, a far from straightforward, but convincingly told, love story gradually unfolds between the prickly Evelyn and another character.
I read this book on holiday, and found it entirely gripping. Katharine McMahon writes beautifully and her characters and story are skilfully drawn. I really didn't want it to end, and think there is definitely a case for a sequel - various plot strands were left open, making a sequel or even a series seem like a definite possibility, although I have no idea whether one is planned. In the meantime, I will definitely seek out further work by Katharine McMahon.
The paperback is available for £7.99 (publisher's price) or currently for £3.96 from Amazon. Published by Phoenix, 480pp.
Although it's a few years after the end of the Great War, life in Clivedon Hall Gardens is still dominated by it. Thirty year old Evelyn Gifford is a pioneering young woman, following in the footsteps of her brother, James, whose promising career as a lawyer was cruelly cut short when he was killed in action. After the war, their father had reluctantly paid for Evelyn to go to Cambridge to study law but had not survived long enough to see her find - after a long battle - a post as an articled clerk to the free thinking lawyer, Daniel Breen, himself an outsider in the legal world because he had not come from the two major universities. When Mr Gifford dies his widow learns that his financial affairs are in bad shape. Her sister in law, who had been receiving an allowance from her brother, rents out her cottage in rural Buckinghamshire and comes to live in Clivedon Hall Gardens and Mrs Gifford reluctantly accepts that her daughter - whom she really did not want to enter the legal profession - must go out to work to support the family.
The three women lead a quiet existence in which the memory of James is revered in a dusty house that is devoid of pleasure and colour. But things change suddenly when, late at night, there is a knock at the door. The caller is a young Canadian woman, Meredith, who is accompanied by a young boy who looks remarkably like James: the boy is Edmund and Meredith confirms that he is indeed James's son, fathered while Meredith was a nurse stationed in the hospital where the wounded James had been sent to be bandaged up before going back to fight his final battle. She says she has come to England for two reasons: so that Edmund might meet his father's family and get to know something of his background, and because the cheques she had been receiving from Mr Gifford have stopped coming and she is in need of money to support Edmund. Her arrival causes much consternation in the Gifford House where the three women, especially the older ones, are set in their ways and have firm views on the upbringing of children, views that this flighty, modern free spirit seems not to share.
While Evelyn struggles to come to terms with the news that she didn't know everything about her brother, her legal career is given a potential boost when, due to the absence of Mr Breen, she is allocated the case of a woman who has been charged with the kidnapping of her own baby which she had voluntarily placed in a children's home. On top of this she becomes involved in a murder case when Mr Breen takes up the defence of an insurance clerk accused of the murder of his young bride while on a picnic in the countryside near Chesham. Evelyn's life has changed completely: she is suddenly thrust towards her dream of being a lawyer in a world where female lawyers are not taken seriously, and she is trying to keep the peace at home as Meredith unsettles the household. Hardly the time to be thinking of romance but that is exactly what happens when she attracts the attention of one of the city's top young lawyers.
"The Crimson Rooms" is a fascinating look at 1920s Britain, in particular from the point of view of women. All the women in the novel face great change. Mrs Gifford has to cope first with the loss of her son and then her husband which leaves her in the unfamiliar position of not having a man to rely on. When she learns that her husband has not left her with much money, her sister in law, Prudence is brought to Clivedon Hall Gardens in order that her cottage may be leased to provide a modest income. As for Evelyn, despite her legal qualifications, she finds herself struggling to be taken seriously, even though women lawyers are starting to forge careers for themselves in Canada and the United States. Meredith represents the "new woman", young and vivacious she wants to enjoy herself: her world is one full of parties and art and she throws herself into everything she does with great gusto. Her arrival at the Gifford house is particularly difficult because she challenges the sombre atmosphere and pious devotion to the memory of the dead son.
The novel works on several levels: at the same time it's a romance, a crime novel, a piece of social commentary. It is significant that the Great War is several years over but it is still a major force on the lives of the characters. The women at Clivedon Hall Gardens appear to have suspended life in favour of a permanent mourning of their lost son; his boater sits on a peg in the hall in the same place it did before he went to war and his bedroom is a shrine to this perfect boy who could do no wrong.
McMahon weaves in a fascinating examination of the struggle would be female lawyers had to face in order to gain entry to their profession. Although Evelyn is a fictional character there are references to prominent pioneering figures such as Carrie Morrison who spearheaded the campaign to allow women to enter the profession as men's equals. McMahon shows that even other working women - Miss Drake, the tight-lipped, unforgiving secretary of Mr Breen, is a good example - did not support the would be lawyers and Evelyn finds that even female clients are unwilling to deal with a woman lawyer, believing that only a man will be taken seriously in court.
The sub plot of the case of Leah Marchant charged with the abduction of her own baby is another fascinating thread in a colourful and complex story. Unable to cope with the demands of three children and bringing them up on a low income, Leah gives up her children to a church run home, not fully aware of the legal implications. While trying to secure the release of the children to their mother, Evelyn learns of the scheme in which hundreds of similar British children were sent to live in Canada and Australia, often ending up as nothing more than unpaid skivvies to cruel "families".
The historical detail is superb. The descriptions of London life are very evocative: this is a London of cobbled streets, omnibuses and Lyons Tea Rooms. The references to clothing and to mealtimes give a degree of detail that isn't intrusive but adds to the overall picture. The language - which I find has spoiled similar novels recently - seems appropriate to the period and the characters are entirely believable. The characters have backgrounds that are pertinent to the story and they don't exist in a vacuum.
The novel builds up to a thrilling climax: the big question is whether Stephen Wheeler killed his young bride and the lawyers of Breen and Co. face a race against time to find the evidence necessary to exonerate their client. McMahon's well crafted story should appeal to a range of readers, not least crime fans because this is an inventive and thought-provoking tale.
I didn't want this novel to end. It is engaging, gripping and beautifully haunting. I enjoyed the author's previous novel "The Rose of Sebastopol" but "The Crimson Rooms" is even better.