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 960: Silence for the Dead

Cover for Silence for the DeadKitty Weekes has been living a catch-as-catch-can life ever since she fled from her abusive father four years before. To support herself and hide from her father, she has taken on several different identities the past years. Now she has forged credentials as a nurse to get herself a job at Portis House, an asylum on the coast of England.

When Kitty arrives at the isolated mansion, separated from the village by a bridge, Matron sees through her right away. But the hospital is understaffed, so Matron keeps Kitty on probation. The mansion was once beautiful but now it is forbidding, with sealed off areas that are crumbling. The patients are all ex-servicemen suffering from shell shock, depression, and other conditions related to the war. The routines of the place seem unnecessarily severe and the budget too limited. Then there is the mysterious Patient 16, whom only a few people are allowed to see.

Kitty soon finds herself working harder and longer hours than she was contracted for. But she also feels something is wrong. There are certain places around the house that don’t feel right. One night she sees a bare-chested man walking around when all the patients are accounted for. Another time when she is outside the house, she sees a unknown woman and when she goes to investigate, is knocked down.

Then she meets Patient 16 and is shocked to find he is Jack Yates, a hero of the war. Some information she gains from a previous nurse makes her wonder what happened to the family that owned the house, who simply vanished. When she and Jack begin exchanging information, they realize something strange is going on.

Silence for the Dead is another supernatural suspense novel from Simone St. James. It is quite good at developing an atmosphere of foreboding. Kitty is a plucky heroine, and this is another enjoyable light read from St. James.

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Day 898: An Adventure

Cover for An AdventureAn Adventure is the account by two English woman academics of a couple of supernatural events during a visit to Versailles, published under pseudonyms. The women had the first experience on August 10, 1901, and the second was experienced by one of the women alone the following year. The two women claimed not to have spoken together about the first event until three months later, when they agreed that the Petit Trianon, where the first event occurred, must be haunted. At that time, they decided to write down separate accounts of the incident.

The first section of the book is each woman’s account of the incident. On a visit to Paris, they went to Versailles and decided to stroll the grounds looking for the Petit Trianon, which was a favored place of Marie Antoinette. Although their accounts disagree in some respects, both women reported seeing the same landscape and layout of buildings and some of the same people dressed in antique costumes. One of the women saw a lady painting in a white dress. They also reported an oppressive atmosphere.

On a subsequent visit, “Frances Lamont” heard people speaking as if they were walking on a path nearby and music from the 18th century. Later, the women were unable to locate many of the places they had visited on the previous visits. These events led them to decide they had observed supernatural visits of Marie Antoinette and some of her servants and courtiers. They also learned that Petit Trianon was rumored to be haunted on August 10, which is the anniversary of a pivotal date in French revolutionary history.

The second section of the novel relates the discoveries that the women made. It describes the differences between the landscape of the area at the time of the event and in the 1780’s. It details the women’s research to explain the costumes of the people they saw and the events witnessed.

The final section of the book contains the women’s explanations of the events as a combination of memories in the mind of Marie Antoinette as she and her family were cooped up in a small room on the day of August 10, 1789.

The most interesting part of the book is the first section, containing the women’s accounts of the events. The section about their investigation is harder to follow and difficult to visualize. Subsequent reading I’ve done on the notorious event contained allegations that their sources validating some of the information they researched were questionable.

The final section seems much too suppositional for easy belief (if you can believe any of it) as well as repetitive, revisiting much of the information from the second section. Whether you believe something supernatural happened to these women or whether their memories were influenced in the time that elapsed after the event or even that they invented the whole (which does not seem to be a general assumption), this is a mildly interesting account that was controversial when published, even during a time that was credulous about the supernatural.

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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 833: The Shut Eye

Cover for The Shut EyeJohn Marvel is the main character of The Shut Eye, Belinda Bauer’s latest thriller. He has been an unlikable recurring character in her books, an abrasive police inspector, but previously, he has always been peripheral to the story.

Marvel is obsessed by an unsolved case, the disappearance of Edie Evans, who vanished on her way to school 11 months earlier. Her bike was found a few days later. Marvel has been fighting to keep the case open.

But it’s another case that we encounter first. Marvel saves a young woman from jumping off a bridge one night. She is Anna Buck, whose little boy Daniel wandered out of the house one day and hasn’t been seen since. Anna is distraught and blames her husband James for accidentally leaving the door open.

Marvel is revolted to have his new chief, Clyde, ask him to do him a favor, help find his wife’s dog. Clyde’s wife Sandra has been attending psychic sessions at a church, and Anna meets her there. The sessions are run by Richard Latham, who tried to help police in the Edie Evans case.

When Anna looks at the photo Sandra gives her of herself and her dog, she has her own psychic experience. She sees a garden that looks artificial. When she tells this to Inspector Marvel, he is disturbed to remember that Richard Latham made a similar remark. But he doesn’t believe in the supernatural, so he thinks Latham said something to Anna. Even more disturbing is the blurred picture of Edie on her bicycle that appears in the background of the photo, taken weeks after Edie’s disappearance and while her bicycle was impounded by the police.

We know that Edie has drawn a picture of a garden on the walls of her prison, because we periodically visit her. What we don’t know is when we see her within the time frame of the main story.

This is the first time I recall Bauer’s books having any supernatural content. I don’t know if she plans to have more or not. This is also the first time that Marvel is a main character, and although we don’t like him, we understand him better.

link to NetgalleyI did guess the identity of the perpetrator early on, but I think the guess was more intuitive than anything else. I did not, however, figure out what links the disappearances of the two children.

As usual, Bauer kept me riveted to the page. This novel is a little more mystery than thriller, but her last two novels seem to be moving in that direction.

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Day 819: The Winter People

Cover for The Winter PeopleReading two books by Jennifer McMahon doesn’t make me an expert on her, but they do have something in common. They both show a fascination with the supernatural and the grotesque.

Like her more recent book The Night Sister, The Winter People is set in Vermont. It takes place in two time periods, the present and 1908.

In 1908, Sara Harrison Shea lives with her husband and daughter on a barren farm near a landmark called the Devil’s Hand. Sara was raised by a Native American woman she calls “Auntie,” whom the nearby villagers visit for potions and spells. We know from the beginning of the novel that she died a terrible death and that parts of her story are recorded in her diary, which has pages missing. In the village of West Hall there have long been legends of “Sleepers,” people who are brought back from the dead.

In the present time, teen Ruthie returns late from a date to find her mother, Alice, gone. When Alice hasn’t returned by the next day, Ruthie and her little sister Fawn begin looking through the house for clues to where she has gone. In a series of hidey holes, they find some strange things, a gun and the wallets of two people from Connecticut. Since the countryside around West Hall is known for people’s disappearances and the Devil’s Hand at the edge of the farm is supposedly haunted, Ruthie begins wondering what her mother could be involved in and doesn’t call the police.

Katherine is grieving the death of her husband, Gary. He had been distraught since the death of their son, but recently things seemed to be better. Then he told her he was going to Cambridge to photograph a wedding but died in a car accident in Vermont. What was he doing there? When Katherine gets back his charge receipts, she finds he ate lunch in West Hall, so she decides to move there to try to find out what Gary was up to.

McMahon builds up quite a bit of suspense in this novel, often from small things like the tapping on a closet door. The novel centers around a series of grief-stricken people and the belief that people can come back from the dead. Can they? And if so, in what form?

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