I have a ghost story of my own. At least, I have a ghost-cat story.
My final year as an undergraduate was spent in relative splendor. My friends and I lucked into tenancy in the house of a professor on sabbatical. Twelve foot ceilings! Built in bookshelves! Three cats! Real, grown-up furniture! Wait… let’s get back to the cats. The professorial family had three cats and a dog, though the dog was sent to a friend with a farm (later, they told us later that we clinched the lease when they told us that cat care was part of the deal and our response was, “Aw, we don’t get the dog?”).
So. Three housemates, three cats. One morning around the (solid oak!) table, we were chatting about the cats’ sleeping habits. Two of the cats routinely slept in my room, the third with one of the others. Feeling a little left out, the third roommate said, “That’s okay, because Ghost Cat slept on my bed last night.”
The other two of us sat bolt upright. “What?” we asked in tandem. “You get Ghost Cat too?” And so it came out: all of us had had the same experience multiple times. You’d feel a cat jump up on the bed/chair/sofa, then settle in next to you and get cozy. But when you reached out a hand to give it a skritch: no kitty.
As hauntings go, mine was both benign and more than a little fun. But the point is: I’m open-minded on the subject of ghosts. Scared, of course, but open-minded. Which put me in the perfect place to read An Inquiry Into Love And Death, by Simone St. James.
It’s 1924. Jillian Leigh, a student at Oxford, gets word that her uncle Toby has died. They weren’t close, but there were family, so she goes off to the coastal village of Rothewell to deal with his belongings. Once there, she begins to wonder if perhaps Toby’s fall from a cliff was not an accident. The presence of a Scotland Yard Inspector adds weight to her questions — and a great deal of confusion into her emotions. Rothewell is hiding something, and Jilian will have to risk a great deal to discover its secrets.
And beyond all of that, there’s the reason Uncle Toby went to Rothewell in the first place: Walking John. Toby was a ghost-hunter; Walking John is two-hundred year old ghost who haunts the local bay. Now Toby is dead and Walking John is… restless.
Despite my easily-tripped scare-o-meter, I loved the book. I finished it with that rare satisfaction of having discovered a new favourite author. And I’m not alone: I’ve been pushing the novel into the hands of my customers, all of whom have enjoyed it. As well they should. It was a success on several fronts: style; plot; character.
To me St. James’ style evoked some of my heavyweight favourites, like Mary Stewart and Susanna Kearsley. Some of that is due to the historical setting, but it also comes down to the prose itself. Clear but not journalistic; straightforward but not plain. Inquiry is an effortless read, but it isn’t simple. Instead, it had that valuable characteristic of being highly visual, without being overly descriptive. Very well done.
Plot-wise, the book is solid. First off, the ghost. At the beginning, neither Jillian nor Drew (the Scotland Yard Inspector) puts much stock in ghosts. Jillian is not contemptuous of her uncle’s career, but she understands why her parents are. Drew, a former RAF pilot, has his own reasons for insisting on the purely rational. But both quickly realize that whatever else is going on, Walking John is very real. For all that I’m a die-hard fraidy cat, I really liked Walking John’s tangible, if terrifying, presence. If I’m going to be scared anyway (and let’s face it, I am), I’d rather be scared by something real than by the suggestive nature of the characters and a bunch of spooky noises.
But there’s more going on in Rothewell than Walking John’s tricks, impressive as they are. The village has secrets within secrets, and some of them are very dangerous. War time activities; smuggling customs both ancient and modern; villagers who may or may not be what they seem: Rothewell is a tricky place for non-locals to navigate. Digging out the root of what’s going on could cost Jillian everything.
Jillian is, as you might expect, the heart of the book. She seems, at first, a little naive and very much untried. But she’s more complex than that. In Oxford she was a student among students. In Rothewell, she is an oddity. She drives a car. She attends Oxford. She is twenty-two and unmarried. She is that rarest of creatures: a modern 1920’s woman. And her entire sense of self and identity is shaken by what happens in Rothewell. Not only by the ghost she uncovers and the secrets she unearths, but also by Inspector Drew Merriken.
If Jillian is the heart of the book, Drew is the crash cart, lighting it up in dramatic and unexpected ways. Handsome and driven, the former pilot found a sense of purpose in police work that nothing else can match. He has learned to cut all ties, to keep moving forward. But Jillian presents an obstacle he cannot see past or get around. For the first time in years, he will have to establish a connection to get through.
Drew’s character also gives St. James room to look back at the war: at what happened, what it cost, what it left behind. Like Walking John, its effects are felt in ways both obvious and subtle. At one point, a veteran tells Jillian it will happen again, that there will be another war, even more terrible. One of the saddest, sharpest moments in the book for me was seeing Jillian dismiss the notion. Then, it was unthinkable. Now it’s history.
Chris Szego prefers her real-life ghosts to be cuddly, thank you.