Crime Fiction Alphabet: K is for The Crimson Rooms by Katharine McMahon

Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise hosts the Crime Fiction Alphabet each week. It has now reached the letter K and my choice is Katharine McMahon’s book The Crimson Rooms.

I bought The Crimson Rooms a couple of years ago because I’d enjoyed reading Katharine McMahon’s The Rose of Sebastopol, which I read in 2008. It’s been sitting with the other to-be-reads on my bookshelves since then and I hadn’t realised that this is not only historical fiction, but also historical crime fiction.

It’s set in London in 1924, with Britain still coming to terms with the aftermath of the First World War. Evelyn Gifford, one of the few pioneer female lawyers, lives at home with her mother, aunt and grandmother, still mourning the death of her brother James in the trenches. Evelyn is woken in the early hours one morning to find Meredith and her child, Edmund, aged 6 on the doorstep, claiming that Edmund is James’s son. Evelyn and the other women are thrown into confusion as Meredith upsets their memories of James.

Meanwhile Evelyn carries on with her work, taking on the case of Leah Marchant, who wants to get back her children who had been taken into care. She was accused of trying to kidnap her own baby. It’s early days for women to be accepted as lawyers and Evelyn struggles to defend Leah who distrusts her and wants Daniel Breen, Evelyn’s boss to defend her.

She is also involved in defending Stephen Wheeler, an old schoolfriend of Daniel’s. Stephen is accused of murdering Stella, his young wife of a fortnight. It’s obvious to Evelyn and Daniel that Stephen is innocent, but at first he refuses to talk and defend himself. After a humiliating experience in court, barrister Nicholas Thorne offers to help Evelyn much to her dislike. But she finds herself drawn to him and wonders how much she can trust him.

I was thoroughly engrossed in this book. It was not just the court cases, I was fascinated by the account of early women lawyers, represented by Evelyn, the central character. It clearly shows the prejudice these women had to overcome just to qualify as lawyers, never mind the difficulties of persuading law firms to employ them and clients to accept them. Katherine McMahon has included a Chronology of Women in Law from 1875 to 1950 at the back of the book and an analysis of why it took so long for women to be accepted. Evelyn is based on Carrie Morrison, who was the first British woman to be become a solicitor.

It’s not just about crime and the court cases, it’s also a novel about the way people’s lives were affected by the War, how men were unable to resume their old lives, some damaged by shell-shock and the horrors they had taken part in, or witnessed during the war. Women, too, had their lives completely changed, so many had their marriage prospects destroyed, and were replaced by work, becoming career women.

Katherine McMahon has done extensive research of the period but it all sits easily within the narrative. It’s beautifully written, full of imagery that creates a vivid picture of the setting and the characters. For example, she describes the moon:

… an extraordinary crescent moon which had, in the last few minutes, risen above the river, with the old moon burdening its lap like a fat round cushion.

and I like this description of one of the characters as she walked from the garden towards the house,

… the trailing hem of her robe a pool of ivory, her hair a swathe of black silk. (page 207)

Katharine McMahon’s other books are:

  • The Alchemist’s Daughter
  • A Way through the Woods
  • Footsteps
  • Confinement
  • After Mary
  • The Season of Light

More details are on her website.

14 thoughts on “Crime Fiction Alphabet: K is for The Crimson Rooms by Katharine McMahon

  1. This does sound good and I am considering jumping in on a historical fiction challenge. The alchemist was very pulsar on the blogs awhile back. Will see if my library has Crimson Room! Thanks


  2. I really enjoyed this one – much more than the Crimean war book. I gather there’s a sequel to The Crimson Room in the works, which I’m looking forward to.


    1. I sincerely hope so. I felt so bereft on finishing this otherwise wonderful historic novel. It was surely left so in the air because the author must have a sequel in mind?


  3. Margaret – Oh, you’ve really got me keen to read this! Not only do I like historical fiction but this also sounds like a well-developed crime plot too. Yes, this most definitely goes on my TBR list. 🙂


  4. This one is going on my endless list too. I had thought when I was young that I would like to be a lawyer. There was only one woman lawyer in our city, even though it was the state capital. I thought she was the best thing ever. I would love reading about the difficulties of women being accepted as lawyers in England.


  5. I didn’t read the Sebastopol book but remember many of my friends enjoying it. This sounds like a book I would enjoy too but can those shelves take another ounce of weight? Down to the library, I think.


  6. Thanks for the review. I really like the idea of characters developed based on real people and a story that also highlights an important part of history. I’m not so sure about the imagery but that’s just me. I like my writing to be very dry and straightforward.


  7. I did enjoy this book, and it is the only one I have read of Katherine McMahon. I have more on my shelf to read. I do like historical fiction.

    Having met the author at the newbooks Readers Day, she is actually writing a sequel to this book, I cannot wait.

    I have rather fallen behind with the Crime Fiction Alphabet challenge due to life, but I am plodding away at my own pace and perhaps will catch up soon.


  8. I’ve just found this discussion having been buried in writing a sequel to what I call The Crooms all summer. So glad this book hits the spot. It’s not usually described as historical crime fiction but of course it is – thanks for taking the trouble to write and read about my book.


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