I’ve been waiting to get my hands on this one since I read St. James’ The Haunting of Maddy Clare, yet when I got my hands on An Inquiry Into Love and Death I was strangely reluctant to start it. It was one of those times when you’re so excited to read a book, you just want to save it and you don’t want to be disappointed. Luckily, I wasn’t disappointed with this one, it had all the elements that I loved from St. James’ first book – highly atmospheric, touch of the supernatural, dash of mystery, and a good helping of romance.
In An Inquiry into Love and Death Oxford student, Jillian Leigh receives the news that her ghosthunter Uncle Toby has died, and she has to identify the body and take care of his effects. Jillian drives to the seaside town of Rothewell and becomes embroiled in a ghostly mystery she had not anticipated. Along the way she meets RAF pilot turned Scotland Yard detective, Drew Merriken, who is investigating some mysterious happenings in the sleepy seaside town.
What I loved about this one was the atmosphere that St. James evokes. This book is set in 1924, shortly after world war one and you can feel the sadness and melancholy that you would expect people to feel after the war; after realizing all that they have lost. This same atmosphere was also present in The Haunting of Maddy Clare and I think its a perfect match for the post-war era. The setting of the novel seems to mimic this melancholy, but I also think that the investigation of ghosts (the focus of both St. James’ books) also demonstrates a mentality that I think people would embrace after such a tragedy as war. I thought this atmosphere was marvelously well done and it wasn’t at the expense of characters. I like a character driven novel and I liked that in An Inquiry into Love and Death we had a character driven plot that was also highly atmospheric. I find that it’s difficult to find a novel that had both strong characters and a strong sense of place.
I also loved the creepiness factor. The exploration of ghosts is a major theme and the way the ghostly encounters are described are terrifying. For example, one of the very first encounters Jillian has with the ghost, Walking John, hits you viscerally:
“At the top of the window – the very top – a hand was pressed to the glass.
The hand was reaching down – from God knew where – ans flattened to the glass. It was grayish white, damp. The pads of its fingers were rotted black. I glimpsed blackened fingernails and a ripped, ruined thumbnail. As we watched, the hand pressed harder into the window glass – as if being used to launch the body – and disappeared. It left behind no mark.
‘Drew,’ I said. ‘It’s climbing up the wall.'”. (p. 123)
I think what also helps the scariness of the ghostly encounters is the way that Jillian reacts to them. You can feel her terror when she sees and experiences things that just couldn’t possibly be real. By having Jillian narrate her reactions, the horror of her experiences are ramped up another notch.
This was a very good read, and I think it will appeal to Downton Abbey fans for its atmospheric setting, but I think it will also appeal to a wider audience because it has a little bit of several genres: historical, romance, mystery etc. I will be anxiously awaiting St. James’ next book! And, if you haven’t read The Haunting of Maddy Clear do so immediately.