"The Crimson Rooms," by Katharine McMahon, opens in 1924, with thirty year old Evelyn Gifford shaken by a recurring nightmare involving her brother, James, dying in agony at the age of twenty on a muddy French battlefield. She is startled to hear a knock at the front door in the middle of the night. Much to her bewilderment, a woman is standing in the entrance with a little boy who looks exactly like Evelyn's late brother. The stranger introduces herself as Meredith Duffy; she is accompanied by her son, six-year-old Edmund, whom she claims is James's child. The arrival of these guests throws the Gifford household, consisting of Evelyn, her mother, grandmother, aunt, and two maids, into turmoil.
Evelyn is a graduate of Cambridge with a bachelor of law degree, but "tradition dictates that women should not be lawyers and the law is governed by tradition." She considers herself fortunate when Daniel Breen, who is a champion of the downtrodden, takes her on as his articled clerk. She soon becomes embroiled in two very different legal matters: One involves a destitute woman, Leah Marchant, who is desperate to regain custody of her three children; the other concerns a former soldier, Simon Wheeler, who will hang if he is convicted of murdering his wife, Stella. Evelyn works tirelessly conducting research, interviewing witnesses, and uncovering surprising new evidence that could influence the outcome of both cases.
This is an engrossing work of historical fiction that is almost impossible to put down. The admirable heroine, Evelyn Gifford, is a highly intelligent and tenacious fighter for justice. In spite of the jibes she is subjected to about "women lawyers," she perseveres, knowing that if she is to become a respected advocate, she will need to be tough. The plot thickens when Evelyn is attracted to a dashing and charming barrister, Nicholas Thorne, who is already engaged to the gorgeous and wealthy Sylvia Hardynge. When Thorne appears to reciprocate her interest, Evelyn must decide how to handle this awkward situation. Her decision becomes even more difficult when she is forced to choose between desire and personal integrity.
Eventually, Evelyn faces some hard truths about herself, her family, and the society in which she lives. Edmund, Meredith, and Nicholas penetrate her psychological defenses, and she allows herself to feel deeply for the first time since that day in 1917 when she learned that James was dead. Her work with Breen reinforces Evelyn's outrage at the favorable treatment afforded to the rich and well-connected, while indigent females are denied basic civil rights. In addition, as Jacqueline Winspear does so effectively in her Maisie Dobbs series, McMahon creates a grim portrait of the ways in which the Great War decimated the flower of English youth. Those who survived often returned home maimed both in body and spirit. "The Crimson Rooms" is old-fashioned storytelling at its best. It is compelling on so many levels: as a suspenseful murder mystery, an incisive tale of social injustice, a poignant love story, and a gripping family drama. Although some readers might have wished for a more upbeat conclusion, the author shows courage in wrapping up her complicated story realistically. Truth be told, a sequel to this wonderful book would be most welcome.