Susanna Calkins: The Masque of a Murderer

MasqueofaMurdererThese books have slowly been picking up steam and are a wonderful reading counterpart to Sam Thomas’ midwife series. Set in mid 1600’s London – where author Calkins can dig into such juicy topics as the plague and the Great Fire (see In the Charred Remains), this novel finds former chambermaid Lucy Campion working as a bookseller and printer’s apprentice, something she’s been able to do because of the massive loss of lives during the previously mentioned events. While not common for a woman at the time, it wasn’t unknown, and Calkins runs with it.

A zesty storyteller, Calkins is also very good at characterization and setting. While I hadn’t read the previous novels I found myself on Lucy’s side early on, freezing alongside her as she endures the freakishly cold winter of 1667. Her former position was with a magistrate and it’s the magistrate’s daughter, Sarah, who draws Lucy into what becomes a mystery. Daughter Sarah has become a Quaker, sort of the 1600’s equivalent of running away from home to be a hippie in the 1960’s. While nowadays Quakers seem like the most peaceful of religious groups, in the 1600’s they were persecuted outliers, regarded suspiciously for giving up worldly possessions and traveling where the Lord called them, frequently to the new world.

Their distrust of authority has put a distance between Sarah and her father, who is grieving her loss in his life. As the story begins, she asks Lucy to accompany her to the bedside of a dying friend, a Quaker who has been run over by a horse cart. At his deathbed Lucy meets Sarah’s Quaker community and hears the request of the man, Jacob, to keep his wife Esther safe after his death. He tells her he was pushed, probably by someone posing as a Quaker. Lucy’s concern for Sarah grows when Jacob’s sister is also found dead, an obvious murder.

Lucy’s job enables her to visit the Quakers, and Sarah, as they have asked for the writing and printing of a deathbed tract. In the 1600’s, booksellers printed a number of different types of broadsides – popular ones involved religion, murder, and scandalous goings on of any type. Deathbed utterances were also popular, so Lucy’s ruse of researching Jacob’s life is a good one. Calkins skillfully includes details of the printing and bookselling trade (printing, publishing and bookselling were all under one roof at the time) and brings to life the vivid street interactions encountered by Lucy and her fellow apprentice.

The mystery deepens as the story unwinds, and Calkins brings a nice sense of tension to her story along with a bit of romance in the form of Sarah’s brother and a constable working the murders. The ending is a great revelation and a wonderful resolution to a fast paced, well told story. I am very much looking forward to enjoying this entire series.