Monday, January 03, 2011

Book review: The Crimson Rooms, by Katharine McMahon

Evelyn Gifford is a trailblazer and an anomaly. In 1924, as one of the first female lawyers in England, she has finally found a position as a junior clerk, but hardly anyone takes her accomplishments seriously. A thirty-year-old spinster with few romantic prospects, she forges ahead nonetheless. Having lost her beloved brother James in the Great War, her remaining family depends on her meager income to make ends meet.

Then Meredith Duffy, a Canadian nurse, turns up on the Giffords' London doorstep, claiming the six-year-old boy with her is James's posthumous son. She tells Evelyn that she and James met in a battlefield hospital in France shortly before he was killed. Meredith's child, Edmund, strongly resembles James, but Evelyn suspects there's more to her story. She has little time to react, however, as two new cases taken on by her firm begin heating up her professional life.

Katharine McMahon throws numerous cards on the table at once, letting the reader feel Evelyn's adjustment to the sudden changes in her life as well as her drive to succeed in her career. An impoverished young mother is charged with abduction after reclaiming her children from their temporary home, and a middle-aged veteran, Stephen Wheeler, is accused of murdering his beautiful young wife on a weekend picnic. Evelyn believes both to be innocent, but proving neither case is easy.

Dashing barrister Nicholas Thorne reaches out to Evelyn, offering his help, and she finds her defenses weakening. Handsome, healthy, and whole, Nicholas could have his choice of women, and Evelyn can't believe he might be interested in her. Meanwhile, bohemian and assertive Meredith - Evelyn's complete opposite - begins shaking things up at home. Her presence, along with that of her lovable son, begins lifting the Giffords out of their mourning, showing them the path back to life without their realizing it.

Through its depiction of Evelyn and her relatives, the novel immerses the reader in the muted ambiance of postwar grief. The Giffords are one British family among many whose hopes were lost along with their young men, and they have been affected especially deeply. At the same time, McMahon thoughtfully expresses the paradoxical feelings of the nation's women, whose professional ambitions get a chance to be realized while their romantic dreams are dimmed.

It's gratifying to observe Evelyn's growing self-confidence. She narrates the story, but through the author's careful attention to perspective, we're also privileged to see her as others do: as an attractive, vibrant, even daring woman who deserves to appreciate the power she's earned. All of the characters, even the minor ones, have hidden aspects to their personality that are just as skillfully revealed.

The novel has the elegant craftsmanship of the best literary fiction and all the heart-pounding suspense of a courtroom thriller. The pacing is marvelous. It's tempting to want to read it slowly, but this becomes nearly impossible as Evelyn gets closer to uncovering a murderer. Multilayered, atmospheric, and emotionally gripping, The Crimson Rooms hits all the right notes. The ending, both bittersweet and satisfying, well suits these complex characters and the spirit of their times.

The Crimson Rooms is published in trade pb by Berkley on January 4th at $15.  In the UK, it's available from Phoenix at £7.99. Katharine McMahon will be stopping by on Thursday with an excellent post about her on-site research; I hope you'll enjoy reading it as well.

Contest opportunity:  I have a new paperback to give away to one blog reader.  Interested in reading it?  Leave a comment on this post by the end of the day Friday, January 14th.  International entrants welcome.


  1. Well, you know I am interested in this book! Literary fiction, yet paced beautifully. Oh yes! I am thrilled to learn about this one and thrilled that the author will be stopping by :)

  2. Count me in for the contest! The book sounds really good.

  3. You've convinced me to give this one a try. I read The Rose of Sebastopol but didn't really care for it but maybe I'll like this one.

  4. Marie B.10:59 PM

    This sounds like just the kind of book I'm in the mood for right now. Yay for giveaways! marie1200 at gmail dot com.

  5. I added this title to my wish list a couple of weeks ago. Your review has made me even more eager to read the book. Thanks for the giveaway.

  6. This sounds like a fascinating book, and I adore the 1920's. Thanks for the heads up about this book. I'll be back to read the interview with the author.

  7. Sounds interesting... I love books based in that time period.

  8. This sounds a really good read- I've had a few disappointments recently. Count me in!

  9. This sounds like something I'd love to read.
    Please enter me in the contest. Thanks!


  10. Sounds delightful. Thank you.
    kaiminani at gmail dot com

  11. I would love to get a chance to win this book.

  12. Gee - that sounds like abook I would love. Thank you for a great review! :")

  13. Wow, after reading that review how could I resist the temptation to get me hands on this one? Please enter me for this one, as this is going straight onto my wishlist.

  14. Michelle11:43 PM

    Your great review has certainly sparked my interest in this book. Please enter me in this giveaway and thanks for giving your international readers a chance :)

    My email is