1920s England. A young woman studying at Oxford who shows not only moxie and courage but has brains, too. A seaside death--accident or murder? A ghost. Hints of smuggling along the coast. A small coastal village with and array curious residents. An attractive detective, slightly war weary but with the air of the playboy about him. And atmosphere. Lots and lots of atmosphere. If I had such a thing as a guilty pleasure when it comes to reading (I've decided it's silly to ever feel guilty about reading a book that gives me pleasure), Simone St. James would be it.
I discovered Simone St. James a couple of years ago when I spotted her first novel, The Haunting of Maddy Clare when on vacation. Good timing? Good storytelling? Most likely a combination of the two with just the sort of story that I find appealing. Once again she has written a mystery slash ghost story with a dash of romance. And she always has strong female protagonists, which I prefer in my stories. I suppose you could call her books romantic suspense à la Mary Stewart or Susanna Kearsley, both authors are favorite and reliable comfort reads for me, so it's not surprising that I have enjoyed Simone's books so much.
There are similarities between her first and second books--style of plotting and setting being the main ingredients found in both. But sometimes I like to know what I am getting myself into with a book. I like having certain authors on my reading pile that I know I can reach for when I need a little escapism from life. I often like to keep these authors in reserve especially for those moments (and in the last year I've had lots of those moments).
An Inquiry Into Love and Death opens with Jillian Leigh being called away from her studies at Oxford in order to identify the body of an uncle who has died under potentially suspicious circumstances. As her parents are abroad she must pack up his belongings and clear out the residence where he had been staying. Her uncle was a most unusual man. He was a ghost hunter who had been researching a haunting that had been purportedly going on for nearly two centuries. A ghost known by the town's residents as 'Walking John'. How fitting that it's in Blood Moon Bay that he makes presence known.
The townspeople know better than to go into the woods alone at night. They steer clear of Walking John and hope he shows them the same courtesy. So when Toby Leigh's body is found at the bottom of a cliff, most people believe he simply met with an unfortunate accident or committed suicide. When Jillian arrives in Cornwall, unhappy to be pulled from her studies, she senses there is something far more sinister behind his death. She has fond but distant memories of her uncle, a serious and scholarly man, but she knows it's unlikely he would never have killed himself. And when she begins coming across the strangest things--like a book in the stove, gates that swing open when there is no wind, and her uncle's diary noting unusual activity in the Bay, she begins questioning just what really happened.
Enter stage right a love interest. Actually there is more than one to keep the reader guessing, but the most interesting candidate is Inspector Andrew Merriken from Scotland Yard. He survived the war as an RAF pilot, so it was luck or skill that safeguarded him. He's handsome, extremely blunt and something of a womanizer (his landlady finds the many phone calls from his female fanclub excessively tiresome), and of course Jillian, against her better judgement, finds herself drawn to him.
There are more mysteries in this story than just the obvious. Lots of family secrets and a little heartache. Jillian is, thankfully, a strong enough character to stand on her own two feet, at least as you would expect a young woman in 1920s England to be--just liberated enough to own her own motorcar, attend Somerville College, and figure out how to get out of a tight situation that includes a fire set in a locked room out of malice. So in a word, Jillian is likable. You sort of want her to find love and romance but if she doesn't you know she'll be just fine on her own and happy, too.
So, another entertaining read from Simone St. James. For me the ghost story only adds atmosphere, nothing too chilling, but she has a nice twist in the story inspired by historical fact and fleshed out using a creative imagination. Serendipity--last night I brought home her third novel, Silence for the Dead, from the library. (I knew it was forthcoming so was prompted to pick up An Inquiry into Love and Death in anticipation for her newest). I finished the book just in time and am going to move on straightaway as I am not ready to leave this particular world. Silence for the Dead is again in the same vein but the protagonist in this new novel has secrets of her own. She's on the run and manages lie her way into a job as a nurse in a hospital treating shell-shocked soldiers from the Great War. Another seaside setting (I can still hear those crashing waves--do please, take me away there), a promise of suspense and lots of wonderful Gothic elements.
Now if you'll excuse me I think I'm going now to start reading. This would make great travel reading, but I fear I may be finished long before my work conference later this month.