A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate by Susana Calkins, set in the distant, violent world of seventeenth-century England, triggers thought-provoking comparisons between the violence and prejudices of that era and those of twenty-first-century Chicago.
The story covers the efforts of Lucy Campion, a chambermaid forced to venture outside the strict rules of her position in order to prove the innocence of her brother. He is wrongfully accused of murdering a girl who was a good friend of Lucy’s and worked for the family that employs Lucy. Her brother is in imminent danger of being tried and hanged before Lucy finds the evidence she needs. Her journey takes her into raucous printers’ shops, secretive gypsy camps, the foul streets of London, and into the horrifying Newgate prison. Her path toward solving the murder is complicated by two great English disasters: the plague that killed thousands of people and, before the residents could recover from that, the Great Fire of London, which swept through much of the city. Running through all this are the stirrings of romance and Lucy’s dreams of what she would like to do in life if she were not just a chambermaid.
Today’s Health Police would probably be upset by the magistrate’s enjoyment of wine with his breakfast kippers. Today’s legal thriller fans will be interested to find out that in Lucy’s day lawyers were not allowed to question witnesses directly. The accused had to ask the questions. These legal thriller fans will also notice that occasional attorney violation of this rule could go unpunished and that backstage activities sometimes helped influence the outcome of a trial. That’s familiar to twenty-first-century Chicagoans, right?
Historians report that religious and political upheaval, civil strife, and class and gender conflicts were rampant in seventeenth-century England. Sounds a lot like 2013.
A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate is Susanna Calkins’s first novel. Calkins is on the faculty at Northwestern University, associate director, Faculty Development, with doctorate and master’s degrees in history. She became fascinated with the seventeenth century while living in London and working on her doctorate.
Writing historical novels so the tone of the narrative is consistent with its time period throughout the book requires great focus and skill on the part of the author. Calkins does this extremely well, both in the way she handles the dialogue and how she moves the story forward. There are, though, a few instances in which the reader might wonder whether a particular incident would actually happen as Calkins describes. On the other side of that question, where is the evidence? Because all the action in the book takes place a few centuries ago, this is really a cold case in which many “facts” are difficult or impossible to confirm. They might all be true. But the book is such an entertaining read that an occasional quibble like that is no big deal.
Finishing A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate leaves the reader curious about what Lucy Campion will do next. An answer is available. Susanna Calkins’s second novel chronicling the adventures of Lucy Campion, Charred Remains, is expected to publish in April 2014.
April 2013, Minotaur Books
$24.99, hardcover, 352 pages
—Reviewed by Betty Nicholas