An Inquiry into Love and Death
An Inquiry into Love and Death is a mystery/ghost story set in 1924 England – perhaps capitalizing on Downton Abbey’s popularity. But if we have Downton to thank for the fact that we now find a new period of history interesting (and therefore marketable), then thank God for it.
Jillian Leigh is the daughter of a famous chemist, and she attends Oxford in a time when women were a decided oddity at the university. When her Uncle Toby dies in an isolated town in Cornwall, she must leave Oxford to identify the body and put his affairs in order. It’s an unusual job for a young, unmarried woman – something more than one of the locals remarks upon. But her parents are tied up in Paris, and really aren’t much like other people’s parents anyway. And Toby was not like other people’s uncles – he had the very unusual occupation of ghost hunter. And his death – apparently from a fall off a cliff – is highly suspicious.
Jillian isn’t the only one who thinks so. A very handsome inspector from Scotland Yard, Drew Merriken, is in Rothewell investigating the death as well. Toby had been staying in Barrow House, a somewhat isolated cottage near the woods in a town widely recognized to be haunted. The most prominent local ghost is Walking John, a smuggler whose young son was killed in a tragic accident. John walks the beach and the woods, occasionally carrying a lantern. Locals are accustomed to him, but still leery of the woods and beach at night.
Jillian is pulled into the mystery almost immediately. During her first night at Barrow House, she hears a scratching sound on the window – but can find nothing nearby that could have produced the sound. She finds objects in odd places (Toby’s journal is in the oven, for example, and the pocket watch she remembers him carrying is in a very prominent place on the table). She can’t help doing a little investigating on her own. Why do ghosts haunt Rothewell, and why did Toby return (she discovers early on that this was his second visit)? It seems clear that Toby discovered something besides ghosts at Rothewell – something that led to his death. And when Jillian starts asking questions, she discovers that she may have ties to the town as well.
I quite enjoyed this book, which I found to be use the right blend of creepy and mysterious (though not outright terrifying). Though I am not a believer where ghosts are concerned, I like reading about them – at least when I can be convinced to suspend my disbelief. And this is really more of a ghost story than anything else, though there is a mystery and a romance as well. The ghosts here worked for me, and St. James does a good job bringing the town and its spooky air to life.
Rothewell has some melancholy citizens. Though WWI is about five years in the past, many of the townspeople are still dealing with its aftereffects. Some of the men didn’t return, and some of those that did seem to miss the action of their glory days. Inspector Merriken is a former RAF pilot himself, and his potential relationship with Jillian is complicated by his war demons. All of this melancholia and angst adds to the spooky atmosphere.
Jillian herself is an interesting character. At times she’s a little too intrepid, but then it wouldn’t be much of a ghost story if our smart, plucky heroine didn’t land herself in danger a time or two. Still, I liked the idea of a curious, independent young woman knocking around 1920s Cornwall, reading diaries and archives, and getting a little romance on the side. Maybe it’s the Nancy Drew fan in me; had there just been a secret passage somewhere, I would have been in nostalgia heaven.
An Inquiry into Love and Death isn’t perfect. There were some things I couldn’t quite credit (Jillian’s selfish parents, for example). But it is an entertaining story with a side of spookiness. If you like period mysteries or ghost stories, I would certainly give it a try.