Katharine McMahon's novel The Crimson Rooms can be categorized so easily. The thing is, I don't think of myself as someone who enjoys historical fiction, and I loved The Crimson Rooms. Yes, it had a historical setting -- and yes, that setting is of central importance to events in the novel. However, I like to think of it as just that -- a book with a well-planned, well-written setting; not a genre novel.
The Crimson Rooms encompasses many things I look for in a novel: a strong protagonist who is flawed (but likeable), a plot with twists and turns (but not so many that it's distracting), strong setting (in this case, a historical one), beautifully written (impeccable word choices, without over doing it with needlessly big vocabulary). It also includes two other genres that are of interest to me: mystery/thriller and women's literature. That combination alone could have caused me to like it even if it was lacking in other areas (though it decidedly was not).
Evelyn is one of the first female lawyers in London. The year is 1924, and Europe is still reeling from World War I. It seems no one in the novel has not been touched by the war in some way. As she works as a law clerk for a well-established male lawyer, she becomes involved in several cases the press focuses on. One of these is a murder investigation, sensationalized because the defendant is the husband of the murder victim. Evelyn works alongside her male colleagues, who are working for the defense. They work to uncover clues about the couple's marriage that might bring another suspect into the spotlight.
Meanwhile, on a personal level, Evelyn is in a bit of a crisis. She is thirty and never had a true suitor; although education and career have been more important to her, she begins to wish she could have both. An unlikely candidate comes into the picture, but complications abound. Additionally, a Canadian woman shows up on the family's doorstep, bringing up the past and casting a poor light over the memory of Evelyn's brother James. The sainted James died during the war, and the entire family has been in mourning ever since. McMahon writes the elderly mother, aunt, and grandmother characters perfectly. Readers can almost hear their clucking around Evelyn each night at the supper table.
Various elements begin to collide, bringing the plot to a crashing crescendo at the novel's end. Although a lengthy read (it took me a week to finish, even though it was a page-turner for me), it was definitely worth it. McMahon's other novels have been standalones, but I wouldn't mind finding out more about Evelyn and where life takes her. Perhaps McMahon will consider returning to the story at some point.
McMahon is also the author of bestselling titles The Alchemist's Daughter and The Rose of Sebastopol. She writes a blog about -- what else? -- writing, of course.
Now, off to scour the library shelves for more McMahon books...