The Crimson Rooms – Katharine McMahon

This is the story of Evelyn Gifford who has begun to forge a career in law. Nothing strange about this perhaps, but it is 1924. The country is still suffering from the effects of the Great War and women are not highly regarded in any profession despite the ministrations of the suffragettes.  However, Evelyn would not be in the position she is now if it was not for that war; taking her brother.

The book deals with two legal cases that of Stephen Wheeler arrested for the murder of his wife Stella less than a month into their marriage. Everything points to him having committed the crime but Evelyn and her male superiors at Breen and Balcombe have difficulty in getting the truth from Wheeler – who is he protecting and why?

The second case was common for the time and dealt with a mother trying to get her children back from the home, where in financial desperation Lech Marchant left them for their own good. Not understanding the law, Leah thinks she can claim them back at any time. It is this action which introduces her to Evelyn. A common case for female advocates to be assigned during their early rise in the law. However Leah trusts only Breen and perhaps she is correct to do so when Evelyn lets heart rule and puts the possibility of getting the children back in jeopardy.

Katharine McMahon has cleverly weaved all of this amongst Evelyn’s family life. The private and professional sides of Evelyn Gifford become confused and then perhaps help in discovering the truth to help the cases she is working on. In the process Evelyn discovers much more about herself.

Evelyn’s brother James was held in high regard by his family. McMahon makes emphasis on the fact that all sons were, and that they were the ones who were going to carry family name, tradition and honour into the workplace for many years to come. The Great War brought a stop to many families pursuing such an option. Now women were gaining respect as people in their own right and perhaps they instead of marrying a nice chap with good prospects and settling down to married life, babies’ et al. They could perhaps carry on family tradition into the workplace.

Evelyn’s picture of her brother is shattered piece by piece when Meredith and a young boy, Edmund turn up at the house with more than intimate knowledge of James. Life changes beyond all doubt as Evelyn discovers love of many different kinds, brought by Meredith into the whole household’s life. Evelyn’s mother denying any wrongdoing by her favourite and only son despite knowing something Evelyn does not. Evelyn’s grandmother suddenly finds someone in the present to talk about ands share the past with. And Prudence, her aunt who has set ideas and ways on how everyone should behave both young and old even finds herself warming to these new arrivals.

There is much that could be said about this wonderful novel. The characters all have their place, the wild eccentricities of Evelyn’s family as well as Wolfe the partner of Breen at Breen and Balcombe. Even Miss Drake, the secretary who believes what women have their place in society and that place is not as a legal advocate. Prejudice was to be found everywhere, McMahon handles this with skill and clarity for us as readers, actually to feel the anger the hurt and the determination by Evelyn.

Colour is throughout the novel. The portrayal of Evelyn’s home is one of bleakness, all shades of grey handled and described so effectively, that whenever Evelyn arrives home you can see picture everything so clearly grey. The arrival of Meredith brings colour to the house in more than her presence. Even in her descriptions of her dresses are there to show the stark contrast between her and Evelyn. The murder scene is described in glorious colour, as is the thoughts of the war and the image of the trenches, the mud and the wounds on innocent men.
A thrilling read, which kept the page turning as its atmosphere was deep and interesting as the story pitched you from murder scene to dinner table, to walking through Hyde Park. I would highly recommend this book as it has so much to offer; a love story, a war story, a legal history and a story of dreams, emotions, the future and discovery.

I have discovered an author who I have not read before and now I am off to discover her other books as well.