In this gorgeously layered story set in 1924 London, the forces of the Great War remain powerful in the lives of Evelyn Gifford
and her mother, her grandmother, and her dear Aunt Prudence, all haphazardly ensconced in gloomy Clivedon Hall Gardens. Although these women have long
accepted the reality of their situation, they
are nonetheless still reeling from the loss of James, Evelynís beloved brother, who was killed in the War.
As The Crimson Rooms opens, the dreams of James are still fresh in Evelynís mind as she seeks employment as a lawyer,
but sheís finding it a tall order in this world where an obstructive legal profession is dominated by men who want nothing to do with women. Eventually securing employment with wiry-haired Daniel Breen of Breen & Balcombe, Evelynís first job is defending Leah Marchant, accused of kidnapping her own child who is currently in foster care.
The ghost of James follows Evelyn like a dark cloud or a crimson orb. Her views of her dead brother are forever altered when, in the wee small hours, a woman called Meredith arrives from Canada along with her young son, Edmund. Edmund is reportedly Jamesís love child, come to Evelyn unreachably out of time.
At first, all at Clivedon Hall sags under the weight of the new arrivals, the
Giffords truly flummoxed at the appearance of this strange woman and her little
boy. James had written a fortnight before his death, but he never mentioned this
woman Meredith, who is short of money and wants her boy to have an education as
much as she wants to live in the house, presumably rent-free.
The pain of Jamesís death still a raw wound in Evelynís consciousness is made all the more acute by the addition of one small detail: a scrap of paper unspeakably stained upon which James had scrawled Meredithís name. Beyond Leah and MeredithĎs sad stories, Evelyn is also
tasked with investigating the murder of Stella Wheeler, whose husband, Stephen, is the prime suspect. Stella's broken body was found in the woods nearby a field in Buchinghamshire, along with Wheelerís own military gloves and his Webley service revolver.
McMahon strikes a rich balance between murder mystery, courtroom drama, and the intimate domestic details of her characters.
The author charts Evelynís difficult path as she seeks to establish an independent life for herself while also coping with the new fragments of Jamesís past unceremoniously dangled before her by Meredith,
a colorful woman at the best of times who soon becomes obtuse, passing judgment on the constrained lives of Meredith and her family almost as if she had stage-managed the sequence of events.
McMahonís heroine is made all the more poignant by the intricacy of her emotional connections, these new faces of demanding people: damaged Leah Marchant; self-absorbed and narcissistic Meredith; poor Stephen Wheeler in his prison cell; and Evelyn's new love, the dashing Nicolas Thorne, whose smile hovers over her inner eye ďlike the Cheshire Catís.Ē But Evelyn must also deal with the rusty emotions of Daniel Breen and the sense that even though James is gone, her life is full enough, and that love with Nicolas is ultimately what she wants. In this London of tea rooms and omnibuses, gabled cottages, grand Georgian homes and cobbled alleys, the bloody war goes on and on in Evelynís mind, a constant reminder of tears and brokenness and loss in this evocative, beautifully rendered novel.