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
- After Mary
- The Season of Light
More details are on her website.