In Inquiry into Love and Death, Simone St. James (A) – Every time I finish a Simone St. James novel, it immediately becomes my favorite of hers, and this one is no different. Like other St. James novels, this one features a no-nonsense young woman thrust into a bizarre mystery complete with ghostly apparitions. Slightly different from other St. James’s novel though, Inquiry is less Gothic and more of a small-town and old-fashioned murder mystery, and I loved it. For me it hearkens a bit back to my years of reading Miss Marple mysteries. Rothewell is a small coastal village miles from London and haunted by a 200+ year old cantankerous but ominous ghost named Walking John. At the start of the story, Jillian Leigh, a woman who prizes her role as an Oxford student and her unconventional upbringing as a daughter of iconoclastic academics, is called to the small and eccentric village to help identify the remains of her uncle’s body. Uncle Toby was a renowned ghost hunter living during the post WWI period where paranormal studies became a social preoccupation for the lost generation. How Jillian’s uncle died is resolved pretty quickly, but why and at whose hands is a much larger puzzle, which takes up the majority to the mystery. As with all St. James’s stories, the evil of humans looms larger than the paranormal activity. Having said that though, the ghost in this story is rather menacing and does create a number of creepy moments.
I truly loved Jillian and admired her courage, independence and strength. She knows that she stands out in a conservative small town. She drives her own motor car, she reveres education and the importance of the intellect over instincts, and she values family ties. All of this is on display in subtle and revealing ways, and Jillian becomes more complex and developed as the novel proceeds. One of the strongest aspects of this novel revolves around Jillian’s love for her parents and her fondness for the memories of growing up with a shy and reclusive uncle who was ostracized for his paranormal beliefs. Jillian is not “a believer” in ghosts, but she is open-minded to exploring all possibilities and she has an avid interest in learning more about her uncle’s research and uncovering the mystery of his untimely death.
The story also features a lovely romance with a very sexy Scotland Yard detective. The novel balances romance well with the mysteries to be solved. And although the emerging love between Jillian and Drew is utterly convincing, the threat of an impending second war hovers over the story, creating tension even in the resolution. Small note of appreciate too as an animal lover for the inclusion of interesting pets that play important roles in the story. The period of post WWI is one filled with shock, trauma and anxiety, from what came to pass as well as for what was coming. Jillian and Drew seize the moment to find love even during the terror of the events of the story and despite knowing at the end of the novel that they are living in an especially uncertain moment in history.