A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate – Susanna Calkins

This was a book I requested from Netgalley based on the cover (which despite displaying two of the weird present fashions – “I turn my back on you” and “nearly-headless” – is pretty. I will never learn), and because of an interesting premise.

The latter is fairly basic, really. We have a well-off household, that of a magistrate of London, who has a wife, a grown son (and a daughter, but she’s irrelevant), and a staff of about four: cook, manservant, lady’s maid, chambermaid. This isn’t Upstairs Downstairs, though. This is the 17th century, for one thing, and a smaller household. For another thing, the relationship between Family and Staff is … strange. To me, anyway.

Lucy is Our Heroine, the chambermaid who has an inappropriate bit of a crush on the Master’s son Adam, and whose brother Will is cast under suspicion in a murder. She is a puzzle. In some chapters, she is a proto-Nancy Drew, having intellectual discussions with her master, slipping into places she oughtn’t and sneaking into other people’s rooms to rustle through their belongings, striking off on undercover investigative operations in which she lies (pretty fluently for a good Christian girl) about who she is and/or what she’s about. In other chapters, she seems to be one of the airiest of airheads, getting herself caught out in her suspicious activities, surprised by the same trick over and over, and simply doing the dumbest things possible. See below.

The writing is not, mostly, actively bad, in terms of readability; I was tempted to give the book one star, but I didn’t hate it violently enough, because I was able to actually finish it without skimming too much. It has its moments. But the writing is, rather often, less than great. It’s more tell than show, and somewhat repetitive and redundant. I saw a bit of punctuation abuse/neglect, and at least one editorial gaffe that completely reversed the meaning of its sentence (“They should not be comprehensible even for a young girl” – yes they should). There were some awkward phrasings and word choices that I found very odd … and of course I noted down a few:
– “She was holding a cup of tea to the little girl’s head”, which as Rachel points out sounds like it’s a weapon;
– “the Mayor ordered all of the stray cats and dogs to be rounded up and executed”, which really shouldn’t be a funny sentence and yet is – did they get blindfolds and cigarettes?
– “I did not ask you to take the hand of God as your own!” I … know what this sentence is supposed to be saying. I don’t have a clue what it’s actually saying;
– “the stone … plopped down” … Maybe it did make a plopping sound when it landed, but “plop” is inherently a funny word, and this shouldn’t have been a funny moment (since the stone landed on someone’s head and smooshed it). But it made me snort.

(I have to drag Mark Twain into a review again: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”)

But, really, much as I gripe about it, I have read worse, and recently.

One example of the lack of attention to detail, though (to return to the griping), is this:

@ 49% … a horrible stench assailed her nose…
@ 50% … a great stench assaulted her nose…
@ 51% … the terrible images that had just assaulted her senses…

This violence against Lucy’s senses related to a visit to Newgate Prison (which took place two weeks after her brother’s arrest – and was her first visit. Filial love? Not so much), and on the one hand it’s clever to use violent words to underscore the violence of the prison. On the other hand, using the same word twice and a similar word in a third place, all within a very short span, isn’t so clever.

I have to pull out two more choices the author made, because even with everything else I’m complaining about they struck me as the most absurd things in the book (except for the CPR). One: We reach the climax of the story, and finally the killer is unmasked and confronted. And someone steps in, trying to reason with him. Well, lecture him, really. And he pauses in the middle to wag his finger at the killer. In the middle of what should be a deadly serious, suspenseful, life-or-death scene, “[he] wagged his finger” at the crazed killer as if he’d been a naughty boy and spilled the soup. There are books that make me laugh out loud, and there are books that wring audible sounds of protest from me. This did both.

Newgate, the old city gate and prison

Newgate, the old city gate and prison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll spoilerize Part II of the above groaner, just in case. It did not make me groan; it made me swear at the characters. Lucy: “We have to find a way out! Before Lucas returns!” Lucas, you see, is the killer; yes, I saw it coming (it was either him or the reverend, and I liked the reverend as a suspect better); he’s gone away for a minute, leaving Lucy with Adam – and the reverend’s bloody corpse (I guess Lucas didn’t like having a finger wagged in his face, either). Lucas has, in keeping with grand villain tradition, told them how he’s going to kill them too, and it’s going to happen just about as soon as he comes back, so it would well behoove these two to boogie while they can. Hence Lucy’s exclamation. And Adam’s response? “In a minute”, and they snog. And I really hoped in that moment that Lucas would indeed come back and kill them both.

I have to say learned a few things from this book, I must say – because as I read I kept saying “Wait, what?” and having to go off and search out things like whether Quakers forbid alcohol (I thought they did – they don’t, and didn’t). Because of my protest against the line about Lucy’s mother expecting her to marry by 25 – which seemed terribly old for the period – my friend ^ Sub Nomine pulled up an excellent article about marriage in the 1600’s among servants. And, too, there’s this:

“I have seen many a time when an accused man grows flustered, or is tongue-tied, or simply forgets to pose the right questions to his accusers”

– was one of the most succinct and lucid statements I’ve ever seen as to how and why the legal profession was evolved. It might be silly, but it was a small lightbulb moment for me, and I give full marks for that. So I was properly schooled a few times here, and I promised the book a star for that … My problem with that is if I had trusted the writer more, I wouldn’t have felt the need to keep questioning what I was reading, and questioning what I was reading took a lot away from my ability to enjoy the story. Somehow – whether because it really is inaccurate or because I lost faith in the author early on, or a combination of both – I just didn’t believe the setting.

The truly insupportable incident of the Restoration Era CPR did not help at all.

There are some other blatant anachronisms –
– “My kids are sick” – not referring to baby goats;
– “That is why I run these ideas by you”
– But the most glaring of them, at least as far as my notes go: “We … got bloody hammered once”. Best I can find online is “hammered” first being used to mean drunk in … 1986. (Granted, it’s just online research, but this site has always seemed to be a very reliable resource.) Why not go all out and just say “We got sh**faced”?

I just find it curious that the author chose to set the book in the 1600’s, and very specifically 1665-6. This could have taken place anytime there has existed a master-servant relationship – or, even better maybe, where there wasn’t, since the master-servant relationship in this book is, for 1666, rather bizarre. Maybe.

“When Lucy arrived back at the Hargraves’ house, she found that Cook had tied a wreath laced with black ribbon on their door. She saw, too, that rushes had been laid in the streets to muffle the sounds of carts and the footsteps of tradesmen and gawking passersby.”

This show of mourning is for a dead servant – and one who apparently (in fact) ran off with the silver. I don’t know everything; I wouldn’t even say I know much. But this stopped me in mid-chapter, because it just seemed extraordinarily unlikely.

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s true that in 1665 the class system wasn’t so strictly defined, and the rapport between Lucy and the family she works for wouldn’t be so shocking, and it wouldn’t be unheard of for a servant to be the object of such a display. Be that as it may, I was still consistently bemused by the relative informality – not to mention the freedom Lucy has to wander hither and yon in her NancyDrewishness. She seemed to be out and about as much as she was home doing her job.

(As, for example:
“As Lucy wandered, she found herself veering away from town and toward the open fields and glens…She looked around, realizing only at that moment that she had wandered right to Rosamund’s Gate, where Bessie had met her fate.”

Sorry, what? I don’t care how zoned out you are in your grief, if your best friend has just been murdered, and you know of at least a couple of other girls who met the same fate, if you’re a woman in any time period you do not lose track of your surroundings, particularly to the extent that you meander off alone into an open field and in fact right up to the site of your friend’s death. You don’t. Ever. And if you do, you might as well stick a bow on your head and hang a tag around your neck saying “For: The Killer. From: Stupid”.)

My overall impression of Rosamund’s Gate is that two different manuscripts sat together on a desk and the pages became interleaved in chunks. One storyline, which dominates the first part of the book, is about a serial killer going about killing women in historic London, and the plucky chambermaid who tries to find out who it is. The other, taking over most of the second part, is about London in a time of plague. Once the second plotline comes in, the first pretty much tucks itself up out of the way. Nobody thinks about the murders, or talks about them – the suspect that had been taken up is released; the family leaves the city, and is fully occupied in mourning the dead and keeping themselves alive. Murder is irrelevant when so many people are dying all over London, and the point is even made that criminals go free because their accusers or the jury pool or the judges have died. (This section is one reason for the second star – it was very well done. Not well integrated, but of itself well done.) The mystery manuscript seems to be finished with. Then – a few months in book-time, a few chapters in reader-time – it is, abruptly, as though the book suddenly remembers that the killer hasn’t been revealed, and all at once there is a flurry of activity to wrap up the mystery plotline.

It was obvious that there was a lot of research into the period, but it came out in bursts, like a child at the beach running back to show parents the cool shell or piece of seaweed or rock she found. The eye portraits, for example: they were fascinating, and sound beautiful and mysterious – but the author admits that such things were “not popularized until the late 18th century”. So – why, then? They were very cool – but they were not integral to the plot, and in fact did not make a huge amount of sense, as it turned out; so why shoehorn them in?

In an author’s note at the end of the book, Ms. Calkins says this: “At times, I took minor liberties for the purposes of creativity and readability, using far more modern phrasing and spelling than people would have used in seventeenth-century England.” Well. I’ll leave it up to individual readers whether the liberties were “minor” or not, and necessary or not; I think my opinion is pretty clear. I doubt there’s a sane writer in the world who would try to use authentic seventeenth-century spelling (such as it was) or phrasing throughout their novel; of course it would be unreadable. But for my writing my goal is/will be to maintain a consistency, create a flavor of the time and place I’m writing about, and do my damnedest to avoid anything that will pop up in a reader’s face to remind her that, after all, this is just a bunch of words on paper (or whatever) telling a tale that just came out of my head. A story is – unless you’re Guy Kay – a fragile thing, like a soap bubble being coaxed into being, and it doesn’t take very much to pop the bubble.

A final kvetch – would it be too much to ask to have some passing comment as to who Rosamund was and why the Gate is named for her?


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6 Responses to A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate – Susanna Calkins

  1. Mary says:

    That’s one helluva review–well done! Obviously I don’t mean “that’s a glowing review;” I meant, I have this book on my TBR pile and I hope I can review it as thoroughly and as humourously as you did…although I did have to skip over some of the “spoiler-is” parts because I haven’t read the book yet. I have now set my expectations for this book MUCH lower so thanks for the heads up! I’m curious, did the book include the Great Fire of London? Surely that’s what everyone would expect when they see it takes place in 1666?

  2. stewartry says:

    Sorry about the spoilers! I got – heh – spoiled by Goodreads and the ability to use a spoiler tag, and believe it or not it hit me at about 2 AM that I hadn’t adjusted for that in the blog post. Will fix ASAP.

    Yes, indeed – you know your history, so it *isn’t* a spoiler to say that the Great Fire is breaking out as the book ends. As you say, that’s another reason – besides the plague – to set the book in that specific year.

    I hope you like it better than I did!

  3. Mary says:

    Well I did notice that it got some glowing reviews on Goodreads….I also noticed that many of those reviewers listed the exact same hometown as the author…

  4. stewartry says:

    Why, what a coincidence … And quite a few of them are attached to reviews about two lines long. Telling.

  5. Kay says:

    This review hits the nail square on the head. Thank you for your funny and thoughtful assessment. I look forward to reading more of your reviews.

  6. stewartry says:

    Thank *you*! I will try to get back to writing them!

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