The Crimson Rooms
There’s been a lot of buzz about this book among mystery readers, so I was eager to pick it for review. Set in post-World War I London, I found the sense of place excellent and much of the plot gripping. But while I found the heroine’s story interesting, she always felt a bit distant.
Seven years after her brother died of war injuries, Evelyn Gifford is still grieving his loss. Although Evelyn is one of the first female lawyers in England, her life feels desolate. She shares the family home in London with her mother and aunt, and the three face a constant struggle for funds. Her father was a successful lawyer, but died soon after her brother’s death, leaving the women in the family with little money.
Life isn’t difficult just for the Gifford women; it’s a complicated time for all of the women in the book. Evelyn has gained some liberty as a result of the war, but still faces serious limitations. It took her years to get hired by anyone, and when she is, it is to a small, not terribly prestigious firm. More importantly, all of the women are dealing with the repercussions of the war. So many men died and so many others were seriously injured, that women such as Evelyn must face the reality that they may never marry or have children.
Evelyn’s life is disrupted one night when a woman and a young boy appear on her doorstep. Meredith, the woman, claims that the boy is her son by Evelyn’s dead brother. Soon, Meredith and her son are ensconced in the family home, causing Evelyn to re-evaluate everything she thought about her brother.
Evelyn’s work life also becomes more complicated as she takes on two troubling cases. The first involves an alcoholic woman whose young children were taken from her and placed in an orphanage. Evelyn’s firm is hired to get the children back, and in the process, Evelyn discovers some disquieting information about the plight of children in these orphanages.
The primary mystery in the book centers on Evelyn’s second case, a war veteran who is accused of brutally murdering his young wife. As Evelyn delves into the case, she discovers not only other potential suspects, but a charming attorney who seems interested in Evelyn.
The author has a wonderful sense of place and time. This isn’t the fun, “roaring twenties” that we sometimes picture the Post WWI period. All of the characters are dealing, in one way or another, with the lingering effects of the war. And life is extremely difficult for many of the characters.
I found all of the main characters to be interesting, but they all felt emotionally distant. None of the characters are perfect; they all make ethically difficult decisions. This isn’t a black and white world, but one with many shades of gray. I think that Evelyn changed a great deal over the course of the book. Some of that change is due to Meredith’s influence, as she drags Evelyn into different aspects of society. Although Evelyn’s future is uncertain, I think it has more possibilities than it did at the beginning of the book.
While I enjoyed the plot, I thought that there were a few too many coincidences and connections toward the end.
Although Evelyn has a bit of a romantic interest, it’s complicated, and the ending is uncertain. I can recommend this to fans of historical fiction and mysteries set in the post-World War I period, with the qualification that this is not a romance, and you should not expect a neat HEA.