Simone St. James
An Inquiry into Love and Death
NAL Trade / March 5, 2013 / $10.99 print, $9.99 digital
In 1920's England, a young woman searches for the truth behind her uncle’s mysterious death in a town haunted by a restless ghost…
Oxford student Jillian Leigh works day and night to keep up with her studies—so to leave at the beginning of the term is next to impossible. But after her uncle Toby, a renowned ghost hunter, is killed in a fall off a cliff, she must drive to the seaside village of Rothewell to pack up his belongings.
Almost immediately, unsettling incidents—a book left in a cold stove, a gate swinging open on its own—escalate into terrifying events that convince Jillian an angry spirit is trying to enter the house. Is it Walking John, the two-hundred-year-old ghost who haunts Blood Moon Bay? And who beside the ghost is roaming the local woods at night? If Toby uncovered something sinister, was his death no accident?
The arrival of handsome Scotland Yard inspector Drew Merriken, a former RAF pilot with mysteries of his own, leaves Jillian with more questions than answers—and with the added complication of a powerful, mutual attraction. Even as she suspects someone will do anything to hide the truth, she begins to discover spine-chilling secrets that lie deep within Rothewell…and at the very heart of who she is.
An Inquiry into Love and Death is Simone St. James's second book and the first that I've read. It won't be the last. This book is outside my normal reading choices on several levels. It's a ghost story, for one, a mystery, and set in the 1920s. And yet, a good book is a good book and there is, of course, a love story.
An Inquiry into Love and Death is gothic in the best sense of the word. From the beginning of the book, the reader can almost feel the atmosphere. Even before getting to Devonshire (where the story truly takes place), we get a foretaste of the kind of description we will come to expect.
I stared out the window as Oxford receded, until I could see only the roofs fo the chapels and libraries punctuated with spires, and the green squares filled with undergraduates chatting in the cold autumn sunshine were gone from view.
The roofs and spires are classic Oxford, but just one word, “cold,” takes the autumn sunshine of the city and sends a premonitory shiver through the reader. Once Jillian gets to Devonshire and identifies her uncle's body, the atmosphere thickens.
By afternoon it began to rain again and I was driving through a landscape of thick woods, the leaves brittle on the trees in the long afternoon light, some of the branches beginning to lose their foliate altogether. As I stopped at a crossing and waited for a a farmer to move his cow from the road—he was most apologetic, and the cow must reluctant—I heard a sharp pattering over my head. I leaned out the window and looked up to see rain dripping from the undersides of the canopy of leaves, woven over the road, the branches bowing under the wet sky.
Here, the description, the canopy of leaves, the rain, not only paints a picture of the rather gloomy Devonshire countryside, but stands in for the tears Jillian has not shed for her dead uncle.
Once Jillian has moved into the rather odd house her uncle had been renting, she meets Drew Merriken from Scotland Yard, inspector and love interest, who is pretty atmospheric in his own right.
It was easy for him to be sartorially perfect, as he had a frame that would give most men's tailors fits of joy: tall, broad shouldered, slim hipped, sleekly muscled. He wore both the suit and the coat with an ease that bespoke a man who took his physique for granted. He smelled of chill fall air and wool.
After the inspector arrives, we get a picture of the house.
The inspector pulled one of the curtains back. Someone—Toby—had taken a wool blanket from the linen cupboard and nailed it into the four corners of the wooden window frame. Then he had covered the dark square with the heavy curtains, which had fastened shut. The effect was one of sinister gloom. The sunlight only barely penetrated, and the details ofthe room were hard to see, as if we were in a watercolor painting.
This is only the setting for unsettling incidents, totally in keeping with the gothic nature of the tale and bringing the ghosts into the story.
Another crash. I jumped again, my blood skittering in my veins. The sound came from the window—heavy and sharp, as if something were being slammed with great force….I pushed the chair back and got up, feeling my way. I could see little in the firelight, yet something about the window made me feel suddenly exposed. I had the same strange feeling as if I'd been jolted with electricity, the hair on the back of my neck standing nearly on end, my hands unsteady.
There is so much more. I could go on for some time about the mood set by the description and the way the ground is prepared for both the ghost story and the mystery. But I would like, at this point to talk about the love story. Surely there is a love story as part of this book, although it might not weigh equally with the mystery and the ghost. It does include, however, a sex scene that seemed perfect for the time, the book and the characters and I would like to give it to you in its entirety.
“I don't know much about this,” I said.
“It's all right,” he said, moving me under him. “I know everything.”
And to my amazement, he did.
This is, of course, embedded in the love scene, but it is the whole of the sex in this book and I kind of love it.
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Myretta is a founder and current manager of The Republic of Pemberley, a pretty big Jane Austen web site. She is also a writer of Historical Romance. You can find her at her website, www.myrettarobens.com and on Twitter @Myretta.