The heroine, Rosamond Jaffrey, was called upon in the past to do some work for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster, and he appears briefly in one scene. Primarily, though, the novel concerns itself with life among the gentry and merchant class in greater London and Kent, with a brief sojourn to Cambridge, where Rosamond’s husband is a student.
In London in autumn 1583, Godlina Walkenden stands accused of murdering her brother-in-law, mercer Hugo Hackett. She had discovered his body the night after arguing with him; she’d refused to marry the elderly Italian merchant Hugo wanted for her, claiming her would-be husband was “steeped in vice.” Lina’s half-sister Isolde wants her to suffer for her crime, but Lina claims not to have killed Hugo.
Lina quietly makes her way to Leigh Abbey in Kent, the residence of Susanna, Lady Appleton, where she’d been educated as a young girl. She hopes Susanna and her foster daughter, Rosamond, Lina’s childhood friend, can prove her innocence. (For those not in the know, Susanna was the heroine of another long-running mystery series by Emerson.) As Lina thinks: “Rosamond always knew what to do. Sometimes it was the wrong thing, but she was never at a loss when it came to making plans.”
That’s a fair description. A young woman of means whose past decisions have caused trouble for her family, Rosamond can be hard to take at times. She’s multilingual, very clever and knows it, and a master of disguises, which she uses a-plenty in her sleuthing. Rosamond also doesn’t value her devoted husband, Rob, as much as she should. She has some maturing to do, so it’s rewarding to see the scenes with their growing closeness. Lina’s a flawed character herself, and as the plot unravels, her foolish decisions become more obvious. For one, she’s infatuated with her would-be husband’s smooth-talking nephew, Tommaso.
If liking your protagonists is a necessity, you may not warm to this novel. That’s not a deal-breaker for me, though; characters’ realistic attitudes and behavior are more important, and I did find Rosamond and Lina realistic. The novel’s best part is its rich portrait of Elizabethan daily life. If you’ve ever wondered about various modes of transport during this era, requirements for the attire of Cambridge undergraduates, or the benefits of being a silkwoman in Tudor-era London, you’ll thoroughly revel in the atmosphere of this book.
Murder in the Merchant's Hall was published in 2015 by Severn House (I received access via NetGalley).