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Review: The Locksmith’s Daughter, by Karen Brooks
Morrow, 2018. 551 pp. $17

Following a shame and scandal that took her away from her parents in London, Mallory Bright returns, hoping to hide herself as an assistant to her father, a locksmith. But it’s 1580, and according to the mores of Elizabethan England, locksmithing is no trade for a woman, nor should Mallory have received a scholar’s education, including ancient and modern languages. However, her father’s old friend, Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s secretary, witnesses Mallory’s talent for picking locks, and he realizes what a weapon she’d be in his campaign against Catholic subversives. The previous years have seen a not-entirely-covert war against those whom, rightly or wrongly, Sir Francis and the crown see as plotters to subvert Protestantism in England and topple Elizabeth from her throne.

Portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, ca. 1585, attributed to John de Critz (courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons)

Walsingham has long fascinated novelists and historians, and no wonder; he may have been the first national spymaster in history. Here, I find Mallory’s connection to him contrived, and her background even less credible, while her scandalous past is nothing less than operatic. But if you can get past that, The Locksmith’s Daughter offers a few pleasures, chief of which is sixteenth-century London, which Brooks has in the palm of her hand. Whether it’s common attitudes, daily routine, the casual way the law treats human life, scenery, or details of dress, she puts you right there:

Up ahead, a pack of dogs barked as a butcher unhooked the gutted pig strung up outside his premises, a swarm of flies lifting from the gray flash as he hoisted it over his shoulder and leveled kicks and curses at the hounds. Nearby, a flower seller chatted to an old sailor with a wooden stump where his left leg should be. We entered an area I once walked with confidence and I stayed close to Angela, who’d begun to hum the ditty drifting from a nearby tavern.

“No — and furthermore” seeps through these pages, which, though many, fly by. Conflict abounds, whether moral, political, or amorous, and Mallory’s closest friend, Caleb, is an actor-playwright, always good for color and theme (artifice, romance, deception). The adventures that Mallory undertakes for Sir Francis are truly hair-raising, and none go as planned. Many people die as a result of his efforts, some quite horribly. The serpentine plot forces Mallory to rethink everything she’s ever believed, and she’s never far from confrontation and recrimination, even if she sometimes narrowly escapes them — for now. There’s even a rakish, passionate peer, Lord Nathaniel Warham, Caleb’s patron, who takes a keen interest in Mallory and seems to see through her.

But despite these promising elements, to me, The Locksmith’s Daughter fails to deliver. Brooks’s style involves too much tell, not enough show. After doing such a marvelous job setting up crackling conflicts, she douses them with generic responses, whether sentences like, “Wonder and terror coursed down my spine,” or scads of rhetorical questions (“Did I make a mistake? What could I have done?”) The author wants us to believe that Mallory, though an exceptional woman for her time, is still at least partly in thrall to common views of gender roles. Fair enough, but rhetorical questions don’t prove that; Mallory needs to show it, not just entertain it, and whenever she criticizes herself for stepping beyond her role or her station, I don’t believe her. This split between the world she dreams of and the one she lives in is a difficult point of character to convey, but it’s crucial. And though I know what Brooks is trying to say, Mallory’s words and thoughts in those moments seem handed to her rather than coming from within. It’s as though she were a member of Caleb’s acting troupe, speaking her lines.

The romance, too, feels a little forced. The reader knows right away that Lord Nathaniel has fallen for Mallory, and when this notion finally occurs to her, it’s obvious that the lady doth protest too much. She would be easier to believe if they quarreled more often about anything substantive, rather than who insulted whom, and there are plenty of contentious issues floating around, not least religious persecution. Naturally, he rescues her at key moments, which disappoints this feminist reader, but it’s also the way he (and others) come to her aid, revealing that they knew a particular secret all along and have acted accordingly. It’s a shame that such an able storyteller should resort to melodrama, but perhaps she knows her audience and figures that skeptics like me aren’t part of it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.