Book Review – The Locksmith’s Daughter


Karen Brooks. The Locksmith’s Daughter. Sydney: Harlequin Mira, 2016.

This is the second of Karen Brooks’ mega-sized historical romances but her tenth published work of fiction. As with The Brewer’s Tale, research is her forte.

Brooks is a writer who brings her streetscapes to bustling, stinking, frantic and slippery life. In Elizabethan England, we walk in narrow alleys and in wide streets and, all the while, animals and crowds and washing and people pouring out of small spaces move with us. Just here is food left to rot. Brushing and shoving past us are the reeking, unwashed and underfed poor people of this huge city.

Along with her skills at creating her settings, Brooks has perfected the dark art of manipulating emotions and making us care about her characters.

However, I have a slight conflict of interest. Possibly two. I’m only going to confess to one.

The main protagonist of this novel, Mallory Bright is a young woman who has been trained to perfection as a lock smith by her father, but when it becomes necessary for her to leave his house, it is to the home of Sir Francis Walsingham that she is sent.

Here is my conflict.

Mallory, for many chapters, deeply admires and is fiercely loyal to this dark, spy master and fanatical protector of Queen Elizabeth. But who was he?

I don’t want to overstate my case but he was the piece of Protestant trash who tortured my favourite ancestor to death. That’s who he was.

My ancestor, Thomas Belson was a wonderful brave young man. He was a Catholic Martyr. You can google him. He was beatified in 1984 and became a saint. Rightly so!

A son of a wealthy Catholic family in Buckinghamshire, born in the mid-1560s, he went to Oxford, part of Oriel College and then off to the Catholic seminary in Reims. In his early-twenties, despite the extraordinary risk, he returned to England where he was caught and arrested and imprisoned. He was released. Maybe his family’s wealth produced the connections to save his life but he didn’t leave the country. He headed back to Buckinghamshire to help his friends, one of whom was a priest and there he was found, hiding in a priest hole (obviously not a very effective one) and this time Mallory Bright’s kindly employer stepped in and personally tortured him for weeks, until he was executed.

So, don’t you tell me that grim, streak of misery was a good thing, Mallory Bright!

Okay, I’ve got that out of my system. Possibly.

Mallory’s eyes are opened to the honourable gent and the story turns and she goes from being a master spy to an imprisoned traitor and, all the while, her gigantic-framed, enchanting (and Scarlet Pimpernel-like) suitor – did I mention he’s Catholic? – Lord Nathaniel walks close by, often in her shadow.

Historical romance is not my favourite genre but stories written by authors who can yank my emotions like Karen Brooks can, are my favourite books to read. I think it’s a bit patchy. I think it’s a bit long. But if you look on Good Reads, you’ll see that I’m in a minority who have any criticisms at all. It is holding hundreds and hundreds of reviewers in thrall, so go ahead, let your emotions be tugged, engage with the spy and locksmith, Mallory in her dangerous world.


About lynettefinch

Dr Lynette Finch. Once I was a poster designer and illustrator. I ran a small poster business called Mantis Prints, specializing in political posters during the odd days of the Bjelke-Petersen Government in Queensland. I’m told my posters hung on the walls of Rizhsky railway station in Moscow, although I’m not sure about that. They are in the collections of the Queensland Art Gallery, on several on-line websites, and in the following book: Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington, eds. Light II, Contemporary Australian Art 1966-2006, Queensland Art Gallery Publishing, 2007, pp. 110-117. In my next incarnation I was a senior lecturer in history. I published books and articles on urban health and feeding people in modern industrial cities, on the Queensland home front in the second world war and the role and history of war propaganda. Sometimes I wrote about Marxism and its impact around the world as well as intimate oral histories of communists in Australia, their experiences in conservative society, their role as social and political radicals in small towns and cities. Once I went through a death phase and wrote about the role of the Coroners Court in colonial society, about abortion and infanticide in nineteenth century cities, and about the role of gossip in policing. My research took a decidedly happier direction when I was granted an Arts Fellowship to Antarctica in the 2007/08 season, as research for a biography about Antarctic surveyor and explorer Syd Kirkby. I bunkered down in a blizzard in Brooke's hut near Davis station and imagined what it was like for Syd, caught for twelve days in a 150-knot blizzard, high in the plateau beyond Mawson in 1960. Some of my books: Australia’s Frontline: Remembering the 1939-45 War. With the rapid escalation of the Pacific War in 1942, Queenslanders suddenly found themselves perilously close to the frontline, especially those in the far north. The book is based on interviews of men and women who worked their farms in the north, some of them Italians and Germans who were interned as enemy aliens. Nevertheless, the book is essentially a story of courage, of community spirit and neighbourliness, and of the public and private war effort of a community facing crisis and loss. Dark Angel: Propaganda in Modern Warfare. This book traces the origins and development of propaganda and media manipulation from the 1800s to today’s ‘spin’ and ‘false news’. Why have governments at war allocated resources to propaganda leaflets, broadcasts, movies and art during major military conflicts? Read the book. You’ll find the answer. The Classing Gaze: Sexuality, Class and Surveillance. Concepts like sexuality and class share the same moment of birth during the nineteenth century as social inquiry turned to analysis of the workings, population growth, thought patterns, economic systems and internal bodily workings of humans (or Man, to be historically accurate). How did these ideological concepts impact in the real world? A great deal, is the short answer, outlined in this book. Young in a Warm Climate: a history of childhood in Queensland is an edited volume about childhood on the Queensland frontiers, at school, at home, in hospitals and other institutions. Fixing Antarctica: Mapping the Frozen South. In 1956, in the height of the cold war, the biggest wintering expedition that Australia had ever sent to Antarctica set out to map the great frozen landmass of Antarctica, driven by official fears that the Soviet Union meant to take the continent for themselves. The fourteen scientists were chosen from a field of hundreds of applicants. The surveyor, the central character in Fixing Antarctica, was Sydney Kirkby. Over the next twenty years, Syd Kirkby explored and map more unknown regions in the world than any other person in history. Earth, Wind and Fire is essentially twelve generations of my father’s mother’s family but it’s much more than that. It’s kind of Game of Thrones without the dragons. It starts with a kidnapped girl in Shelford, Nottinghamshire in the east midlands of England in 1618 and follows an unbroken chain of recorded births, deaths and marriages which spans four centuries until, six generations later, her descendants flee their farms in Ireland and join the diaspora to Australia. Using family stories, family photographs, published diaries and official documents, it’s the interwoven stories of five families struggling to survive amidst the most tumultuous times in European history. What’s next? I’m wandering into the boggy territory of creative fiction, writing a series of crime stories set on King Island, a beautiful windy island in the Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania. I’ve finished the first draft of Book One, The Rock. There will be seven, I think. I’m also writing a stand along novel, called The Key Collector. It’s about a World traveller, Angela who settles in a Tasmanian village near her daughter and grandson where she witnesses a car crash that kills three women. Convinced the collision was an act of murder, she digs into the tragic lives of the victims and is mired in a mystery stretching across three continents and reaching into the second world war.

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