Capturing Restoration London in all its poverty and grandeur, Calkins’ seventeenth-century mystery is peopled not so much with historical characters as with a brutal, unforgiving landscape where the Quakers' strangeness of faith makes them outsiders and outcasts. In A Murder at Rosamund's Gate the bubonic plague comes to the slop-houses in the deepest parts of the
city, and the helplessness of unfortunate girls, born without title or family for protection, becomes synonymous with the social turmoil that results from a society undergoing rapid change.
In an environment where unbelievers are burned at the stake and the rotting heads of criminals are set on pikes warning all who would commit crimes against the
king, Lucy Campion works as a chambermaid in service to the wealthy Hargrave family. Calkins traces Lucy’s troubled evolution from innocent lass to feisty, world-weary spirit, highlighting her internal conflict--clearly devastating, considering she’s faced with a choice between continuing to lead a servant’s life and the possible romantic rewards of handsome young lawyer Adam Hargrave, a man
clearly considered above her station.
Finding true love can be just as elusive as achieving justice for murder. Lucy is tricked more than once by her naive expectations. Given her place in society, a hostage to the whims of any man, Lucy’s courageous actions are understandable, even predictable after she decides to investigate a brutal stabbing death and the subsequent incarceration of her brother William in Newgate
Prison. Lucy is unable to turn away from the injustice of William's conviction
for a crime he didn’t commit.
Kindly Cook keeps a watchful eye on Lucy while Lucy herself watches over vibrant Bessie, a girl who has become like a sister to her. Both are eager to connect with the life that teems about them.
A body is found in Rosamund’s Gate ("where lovers die"), the girl stabbed several times then hidden under snow and leaves.
Smoke rises from the chimneys, miring London in an ever-present fog, the putrid, murderous smell stealing and clouding lungs, taking breath and pilfering lives.
Haunted by the specter of long jagged scars, Lucy makes a desperate, heartfelt promise: no matter her own fear and no matter who the murderer turns out to be, she will play a vital role in his discovery.
Calkins explicitly describes the degradation of such serving girls, how they
were expected to endure as well as how the gentry’s well-intentioned care of them
was often of little consequence. In this world of religious fundamentalism, Reverend Marcus's fire-and-brimstone sermons speak of whores, lust and temptation. Part of Lucy's journey is
a descent into this unfamiliar world of "unnatural cravings," where “doxies” sell their bodies for a bit of gold.
To Calkins’ credit, she never seeks to portray Lucy other than an innocent, intelligent maiden, profoundly grateful for the goodwill and kindliness of Adam Hargrave. Flailing after a series of misunderstandings, she is impressed by Adam’s attentiveness and intrigued by his masculine arrogance. As they engage in an
explicitly tender pas de deux, Adam becomes evermore aware of how Lucy seeks to defend herself even when she doesn’t know what exactly it is she stands accused of.
Colorful and compelling, I valued this novel for its myriad supporting characters and for Calkins’ grisly descriptions of the plague, along with the creaky machinations of an insufficient court system in what is essentially a class-conscious society. Calkins also makes a strong case for how Lucy, an ordinary servant girl, is able retain her quiet sense of honor while also forging for herself a bond built upon a sense of shared grief and companionship.