Barely a fortnight has passed in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666. London is devastated, a sprawling, smoldering wasteland. The smell of smoke still hangs heavily in the air, stinging Lucy Campion’s eyes and nose as she’s pressed into service by the King and by City government to help clear away the rubble.
Beginning just after the events of A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, this tale has inquisitive Lucy ferreting out a murder and buoyed along by her drive to achieve some sort of independence. As the novel opens, there is no clear role for her in the Hargreaves household. The family has been frantically clinging to order in a landscape that seems to have gone mad. After the devastating plague, the great fire has again tossed their world “completely askew.”
Lucy’s continuing affection for Adam is again forfeit to her station in life. Adam appears somewhat distracted by Lucy’s desire to leave the Hargreaves house to look after her brother Will, a smithy in his own right. Lucy also wants to work as an apprentice printmaker for fleshy-faced Master Aubrey. From the printing presses to the wood blocks, Lucy traverses the cobbled streets of London, selling Aubrey’s broadsheets, flourishing under his expert, gruff tutelage and embracing her newfound freedom, a freedom new to women like Lucy.
Restoration London is a miserably claustrophobic but lively place, and Calkins has a lot of fun setting the action in famous neighborhoods such as St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Tyburn Tree and Covent Garden, where oozing mists, pounding heads, and images of hanged men are piled upon the disturbing scene of a charred body found at the site of the burned-out Cheshire Cheese House. Contained within the body’s clothes is a woman’s brooch made of a smooth white wood with three roses interlocking in a heart. Also contained within is a poem that resembles a love letter of sorts.
Lucy plunges with gusto into the investigation, assisting Constable Duncan who tells her the victim was fairly well beaten, before being stabbed and then stuffed into a barrel. He was definitely killed before the fire—“but probably not long before”—and his body would have eventually been discovered when they had to refill the barrel with malt. As the clues begin to pile up, Lucy is propelled into the mystery of elusive Rhonda Rivers, who is convinced that her missing paramour is the victim and that he wrote the poem for her before he was killed.
In a class-conscious society, Lucy’s presence in the investigation is truly extraordinary. Calkins makes no excuses for the popularity of a girl restricted by her sense of place yet appreciative of the bounty of her surroundings, especially the help she gets in unlocking key aspects of the case from kindly Magistrate Hargreaves. Lucy fights to keep the bad happenings at bay as images flash through her mind: handsome Duncan’s pleasing countenance, Rhonda bewailing the loss of her sweetheart, the body tumbling from the barrel, a fatal card game (and the secrets of barmaid Tilly who witnessed the game). The baffling brooch might have come from Persia and was probably owned by someone who trades and sells in ivory. It had been put up as the high stakes during an ill-fated game of cards, perhaps by the wealthy Earl of Cumberland himself.
The hardscrabble existence of both the upper and lower classes is evoked with impressive understanding of time and place. Calkins is superb at recreating the sullied ambience of her Restoration world and of Lucy’s days as she walks the filthy streets of London, selling her broadsheets while glimpsing dark figures through alleyways and doors. The author perfectly evokes the notion of how so many comely women of this period were often abused in the households of the very men who had promised to protect them.
Although this novel lacks the spark of the first in the series and the resolution of the mystery is a bit hurried and unrealistic, Calkins does her feisty, goodhearted heroine justice, securing her place in England’s dramatic and turbulent past, a loyal, honest girl who may finally, after all that has happened, win the undying affection of her one true love.