From the Charred Remains, by Susanna Calkins, is the second book in the Lucy Campion Mysteries Series set in 1666 London where a body found amidst the debris of the Great Fire turns out to be a victim of murder (available April 22, 2014).
London, 1666. Just days after the Great Fire, former chambermaid Lucy Campion is helping to clear away the debris of her devastated city. Mind already swirling with turbulence—from the fire, from her uncertain place in her master’s household, and from her recent heart-to-heart with her master’s son, Adam—Lucy finds herself caught up in even more turmoil when the body of a man is found in the rubble. A man not killed by the fire.
From the vermin crawling all over him, he’d clearly been dead for a while. Lucy dimly noted a shock of black hair and brownish skin before her eyes fixed on the handle of a knife protruding from his chest…
The constable who takes on the case happens to be the same man who only weeks ago arrested Lucy’s brother for a crime he didn’t commit. Determined to see justice carried out for the stranger stuffed ignominiously in a barrel, Lucy attaches herself to the investigation.
Luckily, her new job as a printer’s apprentice yields unexpected fruit: when Lucy convinces her new master to print the poem found on the dead man, pieces of the puzzle begin to click into place. The identity of the man—a foreigner from Persia—is uncovered, as is a tragic love story involving an Oxford don’s daughter.
Seeing Lucy’s puzzled look, Miss Rivers continued in a more hushed tone. “My name is Nasrin, in Persian. You see, my name, ‘Rhonda’, actually means ‘wild rose’ in Welsh. When I told my sweetheart that, he wanted to give me a special name, which also meant wild rose, which only he and I would know.”
It isn’t long before Lucy entangles herself in further intrigue. While questioning a barmaid involved in the murder, charges of blackmail and forged lines of nobility come to light. Soon a second tale of thwarted love, attempted suicide, and an abandoned infant parallels that of the murdered Persian.
Lucy herself experiences brushes with abduction and jail time, all while working doggedly at mastering her new profession. And while she wonders about the state of her relationship with Adam, the constable begins to show more than a passing or professional interest in her. How is a young woman to cope with such upheavals and challenges—especially in an England only a few years removed from Cromwell and still reeling from the double blights of plague and the Great Fire?
Author Susanna Calkins has a doctorate in history, and it definitely shows in From the Charred Remains. This is not a clean, sanitized, genteel London; this is a London where bathrooms have yet to catch on and chamber pots are left in the back alley. Literacy is a rarity rather than a norm. Public hangings are a daily entertainment in one of the city’s many squares. And those accused of crimes aren’t allowed legal representation at trials; public opinion is a more powerful force in the courts than true justice.
Master Aubrey rubbed his ruddy beard. “People need to blame someone for the Fire. Hubert claimed to have set it. If we print this,” he said, shaking Lucy’s paper in his hand, “We’re liable to see our own shop torched to the ground.”
Which makes our narrator, Lucy, all the more interesting. She operates within the strict class codes of her time, but is intelligent and plucky enough to challenge them when she can. She keenly feels the pressures she and her beloved—a man from an entirely different, more elevated, strata of society—would face if their relationship became common knowledge. But that doesn’t stop her from pursuing her own dreams and desires.
And it makes her commitment to solving mysteries and bringing the guilty to justice all the more poignant. As a servant and a woman, she knows her voice counts for little in the world’s eyes. But that doesn’t stop her from speaking up; Lucy’s bravery and persistence are her best qualities as a character.
It’s an altogether interesting array of characters in Calkins’ second mystery. We’re introduced to Persian diplomats, slippery pickpockets, wounded war veterans, loose barmaids, and debonair card sharks. London has always been a melting pot, and it’s nice to see a historical story acknowledge how varied the people there have always been.
The sordid twists involving poison and secret love affairs make for a fast-paced read. Calkins doesn’t waste any time in developing plot points or linking seemingly unconnected occurrences; the last thirty pages read at a breakneck speed as everything finally crashes together.
There could definitely be tighter or more emotional prose at times and certain characters feel flat and underdeveloped. But for a light summer read, From the Charred Remains is a quick diversion. It will be interesting to see how Lucy Campion—former chambermaid, now hard-working printer’s apprentice and petticoat author—grows in the next outing.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.