Day 1029: The Fifth Petal

Cover for The Fifth PetalFans of Brunonia Barry will be happy to hear her novel is out. Like the others, this one is set in the vivid backdrop of Salem, Massachusetts, and features some familiar characters. It also harks back to the Salem Witch Trials. Although some of the characters appeared in her previous novels, it reads perfectly well as a stand-alone.

When Callie Cahill was five years old, her mother and two other young women were viciously murdered on Halloween. They had been performing a memorial ceremony for five of the women hanged during the Salem witch trials, to whom they were related. One woman who was supposed to attend the ceremony was missing.

Callie was present at the time, as was Rose Whelan, a noted historian who helped the young women research their ancestry and took them in. Rose saved Callie by hiding her, and when she was found the next morning, she had gripped her rosary so hard that she had a rose-shaped scar on her palm.

Callie was told by the nuns who raised her that Rose died, but when she learns Rose is alive, she returns to Salem. Rose has been mentally ill since the event, and she sometimes sleeps under the oak in Rafferty and Towner’s yard.

Rafferty was not in Salem at the time of the murders, but Rose has committed a crime, Salem thinks, and that awakens an interest in the old case. Rose was accosted by three boys, one of whom held a knife to her throat. Rose told the police after the original murders that they were committed by a banshee and she had taken the banshee inside herself. According to her, when the boy was threatening her, she let the banshee out. She shrieked, and the boy died.

Rafferty returns to the old murders to find clues, but evidence is missing. He thinks that finding the fourth woman related to the original witches will help him solve the case. Assuming that each woman, including Rose, makes a petal in the five-petal rose Rose was using as a symbol, he calls this woman the fifth petal. But she has vanished.

link to NetgalleyCallie’s memories of that night are returning, but they are patchy. And she has met an attractive man in Paul Whiting, the son of a wealthy family.

This Barry novel stands up well to the others, although The Lace Reader is still my favorite. Callie is an interesting heroine, and the mystery is a difficult one. It is nice to see more of Rafferty and Towner, as well as Zee, from The Map of True Places. The novel wrapped in the history of Salem quite nicely, and the town provides an atmospheric setting.

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Day 968: Lost Among the Living

Cover for Lost Among the LivingIt is three years after World War I. Jo Manders is working as a paid companion to her husband’s aunt, Dottie Forsyth, after her husband Alex disappeared during the war. Jo has been in a limbo of grief and practical concerns. Although he is assumed dead, Alex has not been declared dead, so Jo cannot receive a pension. Penniless, she was forced to take the job with Dottie, who is often unpleasant or rude.

Jo has been traveling with Dottie through Europe buying art from newly impoverished nobility. But now they are on their way to Dottie’s home, Wych Elm House, which has been closed for some time. Dottie’s son Martin is returning home from a hospital where he’s been treated since the war, and Dottie has summoned home her husband with the plan of finding Martin a wife.

On the first day at the house, Jo walks into a room and sees a young girl in gray and pearls. It takes her some time to realize she’s seen a ghost—Dottie’s mentally ill daughter Franny who died during the war by falling off the roof. Franny had hallucinations and claimed that a demon dog named Princer protected her. In the village, Jo hears that children claimed to have met Franny and Princer in the woods. On the same day that Franny died, the body of a man was found in the woods, torn to pieces.

As Franny keeps appearing to Jo, sometimes leaving things for her to find, Jo begins to believe that Franny was murdered. She also wonders about one of Dottie’s clients, a  mysterious Colonel Mabry, who seems to know something about Alex.

St. James just keeps getting better and better at her chosen combination of suspense, the supernatural, and romance. In this case, a little of the mystery was lessened because there was only one plausible romantic partner for Jo, but still, this is a very suspenseful, eerie novel.

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Day 889: An Inquiry into Love and Death

Cover for An Inquiry into Love and DeathFor light reading with a supernatural twist, I’m developing an affection for the novels of Simone St. James. Her romantic suspense novels are set in post-World War I England and feature spunky heroines who get embroiled in mystery, always with a supernatural element.

Jillian Leigh is an Oxford student in one of the few colleges for women. She is summoned away from her studies with news that her Uncle Toby has died. Her parents expect her to take care of his affairs, saying that her father is unable to leave his work in Paris.

Jillian hasn’t actually seen her uncle since her parents broke with him when she was 14, for reasons she does not know. The one thing she knows about him is embarrassing, that he worked as a ghost hunter. Other than that, she remembers him as a shy, quiet person who was kind to her.

She is appalled, however, to find she is expected to identify his body. He was staying in the seaside village of Rothewell, thought to be haunted by the ghost of a smuggler, when early one morning he fell off a cliff.

Jillian stays in the house where Toby lived, an isolated cottage nearest the activities of the purported ghost. Almost immediately, odd things begin happening. She finds things in odd places, a book in  the stove, for example. At night she hears what she thinks is a tree scratching her window, but in the daytime she sees there is no tree anywhere near it. Then Scotland Yard Inspector Drew Merriken arrives and tells her that Toby may have been murdered.

After reading a few of St. James’s novels, I have no doubt there will be a romance with the inspector, but her combination of ghost story and mystery is truly suspenseful. I found this to be another enjoyable romantic suspense novel.

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Day 850: The Other Side of Midnight

Cover for The Other Side of MidnightEllie Winter has been living a retired life since her mother’s death. Her mother was a psychic called The Fantastique who delivered messages from people’s loved ones, and she was particularly busy since the onset of World War I. But a few years ago, the New Society, a psychic research institute, called her a fake. Her mother died soon after, her career ruined. Ellie took up her work but refuses to contact the dead. Instead, she specializes in finding lost objects. The thing is, neither Ellie nor her mother are fakes.

To her surprise, Ellie is contacted by George Sutter, the brother of Gloria Sutter, who used to be her good friend until she was involved in the New Society fiasco. Gloria was also a psychic, and she and Ellie became friends because they understood one another. At least, that’s what Ellie thought.

Now George tells her that Gloria was murdered, but before she went to the meeting where she died, she left George a message that said, “Tell Ellie Winter to find me.” Ellie is surprised to learn that Gloria agreed to attend a séance at the home of her clients, something she would usually not agree to do. She is also surprised to find George involved, because Gloria split from him years ago. Ellie is under the impression that George works for the government, perhaps for MI5.

In her investigations, Ellie soon encounters James Hawley. She was attracted to him a few years ago when she met him on the flapper scene with Gloria, but he was involved in the New Society tests that disgraced her mother. One of the people Ellie wants to interview is a psychic named Ramona, whom he is supposed to observe that night. James tells Ellie that he always felt there was something wrong about the tests Ellie and her mother were subjected to, designed with input from Gloria.

Ramona is clearly a fake; Ellie can easily spot her tricks. But she has something interesting to say. The clients who had supposedly summoned Gloria to their house for a séance were not pleased to have Ramona and Fitzroy Todd arrive with her. Also, they were not set up for a séance. When Gloria went out into the garden, she was strangled. Soon, Ramona is dead, too, and Ellie has had a close encounter with the murderer.

Simone St. James dedicates this book to Mary Stewart. I don’t think many romantic suspense writers can top Stewart, but St. James seems a worthy successor. Although she is more interested in the supernatural than Stewart (only one of Stewart’s romantic suspense novels had a supernatural element, although there is that Merlin series), she creates an atmospheric setting, builds plenty of suspense, and keeps the romance secondary to the mystery. I have really enjoyed the two novels I’ve read by her so far.

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Day 717: Wildfire at Midnight

Cover for Wildfire at MidnightGianetta Drury is more sophisticated than the usual Mary Stewart heroine. She is a model and the ex-wife of a writer. It is 1953 and London is filling up for Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation when Gianetta’s boss suggests she take a holiday and get some rest. At the suggestion of her parents, she travels to a hotel on the Isle of Skye. (It is because of this book that I formed a life-long desire to see the Isle of Skye, as yet unmet.)

Gianetta has only been at the hotel a few hours when she makes two horrifying discoveries. One is that her ex-husband Nicholas is staying at the hotel. The other is that a local girl was recently murdered on one of the mountains, her body found across a bonfire like a sacrifice. She is said to have been meeting a man from the hotel.

All of the men currently staying at the hotel were there at the time of the murder except for movie star Marcia Maling’s chauffeur. Mr. and Mrs. Hartley Corrigan are vacationing with Alastair Braine, an old friend of Gianetta’s, here for the fishing. Colonel Cowdray-Simpson, also a fisherman, would seem to be too old to be a suspect. The famous mountaineer Rodney Beagle is there, climbing during the day and listening nightly to the radio broadcasts about Edmund Hillary’s expedition on Everest. And there is also a bouncy travel writer named Hubert Hay, who is researching his next book, Sauntering Through Skye. The handsome Roderick Grant is also a climber, and he quickly shows a liking for Gianetta. And then there’s Nicholas. Unfortunately, none of the men have an alibi for the murder.

Very soon two other visitors to the hotel have vanished, two women who went climbing on Garsven, the same mountain where the girl was found. They were seen from afar climbing with a third person, yet everyone else has returned to the hotel. To her horror, Gianetta is also aware of some information that seems to implicate Nicholas. She begins struggling with understanding where her loyalties lie.

Wildfire at Midnight is atmospheric and suspenseful. Stewart was a wonderful writer, known for her evocative descriptions of exotic locales and for her engaging characters. I come back to her books for light reading again and again.

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Day 525: Nine Coaches Waiting

Cover for Nine Coaches WaitingIn honor of Mary Stewart’s death earlier this month, here’s a review of another of her classic romantic suspense novels. She was really the master of this genre, writing literate novels with intelligent, plucky heroines and lots of excitement.

Linda Martin arrives in 1950’s France to take up a post as governess to a little boy, Comte Philippe de Valmy. Although Linda has been living in England since her poet father’s death, she has grasped this chance to return to France, where she was born. When the de Valmy’s stress that they want a governess who speaks only English, Linda decides to deceive them in a small way by pretending she does not speak French.

As Linda settles into her life at the Château Valmy, she occasionally feels some disquiet about events or comments she overhears. Philippe is an orphan whose parents died in an automobile accident. Until recently, he was living with his Uncle Thierry, an archaeologist, but Thierry went off to work on a dig. Philippe is a lovable boy, but he seems afraid of his aunt and uncle. Léon de Valmy is confined to a wheel chair. He was once a member of the international social scene, but since his polo accident he has focused his activities on the estate, which belongs by right to Philippe. Although he is a charismatic personality and Linda likes him, she thinks he treats Philippe with undue strictness. His wife Héloïse is beautiful but cool.

Linda has a dramatic meeting with Raoul, the de Valmy’s handsome and worldly son. He seems disposed to admire her, but she cannot believe he is serious. Despite herself, though, she finds herself falling in love.

A couple of disturbing near-accidents happen to Philippe. During a walk in the woods, he is almost shot, apparently by a careless hunter. Later, Linda notices a weakness in the railing of Philippe’s balcony and shoves something across it. This action keeps him from falling to his death when he runs out to the balcony to see who is arriving. Soon she becomes afraid that someone is trying to kill the little boy she has been hired to protect.

Photo of Mary Stewart
Mary Stewart

Stewart knows how to set a scene and build suspense. She is also an extremely good writer who is able to make you care about her characters. Because of its setting in the château, this is one of the more gothic of her suspense novels. It is also one of the most romantic. Nine Coaches Waiting is the first Stewart novel I read, and it has remained one of my favorites.

Day 382: Touch Not the Cat

Cover for Touch Not the CatI was surprised by how many people were interested in my review of Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, so I decided to post a review of another Stewart novel, one of my favorites of her later romantic suspense novels, about family secrets, published in 1976. Touch Not the Cat is the only Stewart book, aside from her Merlin novels, that includes a touch of the supernatural.

Bryony Ashley is awakened on Madeira, where she works, by a message from her father. She has always had a telepathic link with one of her cousins—she doesn’t know which one—but he unexpectedly relays a garbled message from her father. So, she is not altogether surprised when she learns that her father has been severely injured after a hit and run accident. Before she can go to him, he dies, leaving behind a warning of danger. She returns to England to settle his estate.

Bryony’s family owns Ashley Court, an ancient stately home that the family has not been able to afford for some time. It is entailed to her cousin Howard and after him to his sons, her identical twin cousins Emory and James.  Bryony has always assumed that her “lover,” as she calls her telepathic friend, is one of these two cousins, since telepathy is said to run in her family and she was never very close to her third cousin, Francis.

The only part of the estate that passes to Bryony is the small cottage where she lives on a patch of land surrounded by a system of canals. The rest of Ashley Court is currently being rented by a rich American family, the Underhills.

Almost as soon as Bryony gets home, odd things begin happening. Someone steals an old book of records from the church. She goes on the tour of Ashley Court and notices that small, valuable objects of art are missing, including some of her own possessions. Then Emory and James arrive on the scene and immediately begin pressuring her to wind up the estate affairs and sell her own property to them.

As she pokes around in the library, Bryony figures out that her father was worried about something he discovered about the ancient property and is reluctant to sell it until she determines just what his discovery was. Calmly helping around the estate is her childhood friend, Rob Granger. It was to Mrs. Granger and her son that Bryony always turned in times of trouble as a child, so she confides some of her concerns to him.

Interspersed with Bryony’s story are a few paragraphs in each chapter from the point of view of an ancestor, the black sheep of the family, Nick Ashley. It was Nick’s father who selected the puzzling family motto “Touch not the cat, but [without] a glove” (an actual motto of the Clan MacPherson). Eventually, the two stories converge to reveal the secrets of the house and the reason for Bryony’s father’s death.

From a more innocent time, Mary Stewart’s novels are among those I turn to periodically for a bit of light reading, and I find them unfailingly entertaining. As usual with Stewart, her heroine is appealing and she slowly builds a feeling of suspense. Her plotting in this novel is complicated and the mystery engrossing. Although we are accustomed these days to narratives that move back and forth between two periods of time, this was a more unusual technique for the 1970’s.