“Definitely something”: Simone St. James, An Inquiry into Love and Death

inquiryI wouldn’t probably have given Simone St. James a try if it weren’t for Miss Bates‘s recommendation on Twitter. I don’t really do ghost stories — my inner skeptic interferes with my enjoyment. The last truly supernatural story I can remember reading is Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, which for me was just OK, with some good “shivery moments” but an undermotivated ghost. I’m glad I followed up with St. James, though, as I quite liked An Inquiry into Love and Death and am looking forward to The Haunting of Maddy Clare.

On Twitter, folks agreed St. James is basically writing romantic suspense, in the spirit of, say, Mary Stewart, and that seems right to me so far. An Inquiry into Love and Death also reminded me faintly of Jamaica Inn, except that Jamaica Inn has a much richer texture. Here too we have a coastal setting, with rugged rocks and rough surf, a handsome and somewhat threatening hero, a bold but innocent heroine, and a lot of mysterious goings-on involving boats. The difference is that An Inquiry into Love and Death also has a ghost, Walking John, whose existence is not only believed in by pretty much all the villagers as well as the heroine, but seems to be backed by the novel itself rather than resolved into rationality. I suppose we’re left with a bit of wiggle room: “There was something,” says our Scotland Yard detective — “definitely something,” agrees his more skeptical partner. But neither commits altogether to a supernatural explanation, and we could always take their irresolute side. That seems contrary, though, to the haunted spirit of the book.

I found the ghostly parts of the story the least interesting, and that was something of a problem for me, since they are fundamental to its genre as well as its plot. They were certainly a bit creepy: I listened to the first half of the novel as an audio book, and eventually decided I didn’t love being alone in my basement office while immersed in it — partly for that reason and partly because I wanted to be able to skip a long a bit faster sometimes. But after a while they just seemed gratuitous to me. There’s plenty to be scared of, interested in, and mystified by in the plain old natural world, as I see it, and indeed as St. James shows it, and so all the ghostly parts ultimately distanced me from, rather than involving me in, the story.

On the plus side, I thought St. James did a really good job integrating her story with her historical setting. I liked that her heroine is a student at Somerville, and that the other characters observe and sometimes dislike the anomaly of that; the aftermath of World War I is thoughtfully described and personalized through a range of characters, and the central crime turns on the war’s lingering trauma in an interesting way. The romance, however, struck me as implausibly sudden and heated, given how unlike the characters are. On reflection, that might be partly Rosalyn Landor’s fault, as her reading of Jillian’s first-person narration made her sound prim rather than passionate — one way in which an audio book can affect your reception of the text “itself.”

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