Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Review: The Crimson Rooms by Katharine McMahon

I generally don't read anything that has a body or blood in it because I am prone to nightmares, coward that I am. So it is probably completely incongruous that I would cheerfully agree to read a book in which one of the first female lawyers in Britain is helping to defend a man accused of murdering his wife. I am nothing if not inconsistent. Then again, I am up writing this review in the wee hours of the night when I am usually asleep because the image of a pink shoe on a lady's foot poking out of the underbrush has crawled into my brain and horrified me beyond sleep. Tame stuff for afficianados of the scary and gory but disturbing and lasting for babies like me.

Six years after her brother's death in WWI, Londoner Evelyn Gifford opens the door to find a small boy the spitting image of her brother standing with his mother on the stoop. There is no doubt that the child is her brother James' son, conceived just before his death. The household has been in a sort of grieving stasis since the telegram announcing James' death six years ago and the presence of small Edmund and his mum Meredith is about about to change everything. And while Evelyn's family life is undergoing this major upheaval, she is struggling in her professional life and opening up to an opportunity in her personal life as well.

One of the first female lawyers in England, Evelyn is still in training and facing the almost inevitable prejudice of being a trailblazer. Her boss has relegated her to mostly unimportant (and non-paying) clients. When he is out of town, by default she is given the case of a poor mother, a bit too fond of drink, who is accused of having kidnapped her own child. Leah Marchant willingly surrendered her children to a charity home while she tried to get back on her feet but in so doing, she didn't fully understand the consequences of her actions or the potentially terrible complications. In fact, neither did most of society fully understand the possible fates for children like Leah Marchant's. A seemingly insignificant case, it blossoms out of control as Evelyn undertakes to reunite the mother with her children.

Meanwhile, she is also called on to assist at a spectacular murder trial where a former soldier is accused of having shot his new wife in the heart while out picnicking and then cold bloodedly heading to a pub for a few drinks. The evidence against Stephen Wheeler is overwhelming if circumstantial and Evelyn may be the only person who believes his innocence. And proving that innocence could be beyond her capabilities.

As I've already mentioned, the murder storyline left me sleepless over the two nights it took to read the book. This is not because it was difficult to figure out who the killer was though. As a matter of fact, it seemed to me to be glaringly obvious from the first. But as the novel is much more than the mystery, this seems less a handicap than it might.

The obstacles faced by women in the time between the two world wars, as they not only entered the workplace but entered in educated professions which had always been the sole province of men, were enormous. And add to that the lack of rights of women in general during this time and it becomes clear the sorts of odds a character like Evelyn faced. She should have been a wonderfully admirable character but I just couldn't warm to her. She was somehow more insipid than I had expected given her drive to become a lawyer despite general public sentiment. Perhaps this was intended to show her complexity and make her multi-dimensional but it left me without a character with whom to identify. As for Meredith, the mother of James' son and the character who stands as a foil to Evelyn, I didn't care for her either. She was flighty and cruel, fickle, inconsistent, and grasping and I suspect she was not meant to seem that way. Evelyn's budding lust for Nicholas, a man who represents everything she abhors, was a distraction given everything else going on in the novel but his very presence was necessary to the meat of the plot, making for an interesting conundrum: how to include him without the busyness of yet another plot thread.

Given the fact that the novel was certainly out of my comfort zone, I probably zeroed in on things that wouldn't have struck other readers quite as strongly. And as evidenced by my lack of sleep, the detail of the story is quite vivid. The touches of historical information, the reaction and prejudice against the first female lawyers, the shipping of children from English charity homes to Canada where they could be ill-used, the toll the war had on the survivors, both soldier and civilian, all of these were fascinating and woven into the novel well. I just couldn't make a connection with the characters that didn't leave me irritated and so my overall enjoyment was lessened. I do think, however, that mystery readers will enjoy the threads of the story that kept me awake and historical fiction readers will find interesting nuggets scattered throughout this post-WWI set novel.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.

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