The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Canadian author Simone St. James is a ghost story, a love story and a mystery all rolled into one. I found the book in a bookstore at the Denver airport coming back from San Francisco, and it was an entertaining find, as I totally lost myself in the story in a way that I haven't done in a while. Yes, it makes perfect airport/flying reading by the way. It was definitely a case of good timing (life being a little less stressful than of late) and good storytelling. Why had I not heard of St. James or seen this book before? But I did find it, and am glad I did so.
This is quite solidly a ghost story and while the chill factor is on the light side (it's really hard in my book to pull off a totally convincing ghost story), it did nothing to lessen the pleasure of reading. Actually there were a few twists that I wasn't expecting, and if as a reader you go into the book with an open mind about ghosts and hauntings and just roll with the story, there is much there to like. This is a case of more atmosphere and creepiness than downright chills, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Although I've never read anything by Victoria Holt (I've heard much about her, however), she comes to mind in comparison since there is a nice gothic flavor to the story.
The place is 1920s England. Sarah Piper is a young woman alone in the world and trying hard to make ends meet. It's not the best of times. So many young men died in the Great War, and so many more have suffered from it, but everyone (Sarah included) is trying to get on in life. It's a fairly mean existence she leads since times are tough economically and she's only been working a string of temporary jobs. She agrees to take on an assignment working for a writer as his assistant, which she expects to be nothing more than typing duties but it turns out Alistair Gellis is a ghost hunter. He travels the country with his friend and colleague, Matthew Ryder, documenting ghostly sightings, but Falmouth House in Waringstoke is a special case. The ghost is that of a woman who responds virulently and violently to men, so Sarah is needed to make initial contact with the ghost, Maddy Clare.
Maddy Clare is something of an enigma. She appeared one night at Falmouth House muddied and bruised, obviously traumatized and in a state of shock. Unable to talk she couldn't even remember what had happened to her. The Clare family took her in and cared for her while trying to locate her family, but she seemed to simply appear out of nowhere. Maddy was only twelve when she appeared on the Clare's doorstep. Not having anywhere else to go she stayed and took the Clare name, but a handful of years later something or someone sent her into a maddening spiral and she hung herself from the rafters in the barn. For Alistair and Matthew it's an opportunity to make contact with more than a simple poltergeist, but unbekownst to Sarah, she was chosen for her sensitivity in the hope that she can drawn Maddy out.
Maddy is an unsettled spirit and much more dangerous than Alistair realizes. The Clares want Maddy put to rest. While she stays within the confines of the barn, life with a ghost has disrupted their lives to the point they can no longer live quietly. So it's under the strangest of circumstances that Sarah works with Alistair and Matthew. Sarah isn't just sensitive but becomes a voice through which Maddy begins to speak and seeks vengeance on those who robbed her of her childhood. She preys on the trio in different ways bringing to the fore their own fears and weaknesses--each in their own way damaged or with some pyschological fragility.
In many ways this is a conventional romance, a genre I don't usually read (I'm more of a historical fiction/fiction with a bit of romance thrown in fan), but there are just enough elements that push it into a category of its own. Alistair is handsome, charming and wealthy, too. Matthew is rough and tumble, not quite so refined as his friend. Both served in the war and each carries different scars, which Maddy, in her anger will draw upon. Sarah is often working and speaking at cross purposes with Matthew, and of course there is a magnetic draw to him despite his gruffness. But the romance is balanced by the mystery and suspense as the three work to unravel the mystery of Maddy Clare.
If you are looking for an entertaining story that's not too demanding with just a touch of gothic atmosphere and some good suspense you might give The Haunting of Maddy Clare a whirl. Think Deanna Raybourn crossed with Susanna Kearsley style-wise. And I even quite enjoyed the romantic elements and wouldn't mind revisiting the characters again sometime in yet another story. St. James has a new book (with different characters alas) coming out next winter, An Inquiry into Love and Death. Yet another ghost story to look forward to.
You can read more about Simone St. James here.