Lost Among the Living
I’ve been a fan of Simone St. James since reading her 2012 release, The Haunting of Maddy Clare, and eagerly anticipate each new release. Lost Among the Living lived up to my anticipation, offering the mix of historical mystery, romance, and ghosts I’ve come to expect and enjoy. While it’s not my favorite of her books, it’s a strong entry and one I heartily recommend. As a note, it can be difficult to write reviews of mysteries without revealing key spoilers; it’s particularly difficult here as the back cover hints at a rather major spoiler.
Jo Manders has felt insecure for virtually her entire life. As a child, living with a mentally unstable mother, Jo worried about such basic necessities as food and shelter. When she was 18 her mother was permanently hospitalized, leaving Jo to fend for herself and pay for her mother’s care.
For a brief period – while married to Alex – Jo felt secure and happy (we see some of these scenes through flashbacks). But her happiness ended when Alex’s plane crashed during World War I. Because his body was never found, Alex was declared “missing” rather than “dead, leaving Jo without a widow’s pension. Once again, Jo is alone and financially desperate.
Now, in 1921, Jo is employed by Alex’s Aunt Dottie. Initially hired to accompany Dottie to Europe for an art buying trip, they’re now heading back to England. Dottie offered Jo continued employment in an unspecified capacity. Dottie is a difficult, temperamental woman, and working for her is unpleasant and demeaning. But Dottie is Jo’s last link to Alex so she doesn’t quit.
Once they arrive at Wych Elm House, the family home in Sussex, it’s not clear that Jo has made a wise choice, as she learns more about Dottie’s family. Dottie’s husband is a womanizer who clearly wants nothing to do with Dottie. Dottie, in turn, plans to find a fiancée for their son Martin who suffered severe injuries during the war, and is expected shortly at Wych Elm House.
Jo also learns that their daughter Frances died under mysterious circumstances. The family is isolated from the nearby village, and when Jo goes there on an errand she hears wild rumors including suspicions about Frances’ death and a beast that roams the woods and may have killed a man.
Ms. St. James is a master at building tension, and it seeps from each page. Jo quickly begins hearing things at Wych Elm House; doors slam mysteriously, footsteps sound when no one is present. And leaves appear in unusual places in the house. And as I’ve come to expect, Jo soon sees a ghost in the form of Frances. In some of the author’s books the ghost is evil and threatening. In this case, I found Frances terribly poignant.
Jo is determined to figure out what really happened to Frances – was she murdered or did she commit suicide. When Jo learns that Alex lied to her about many things, including the fact that he came to Wych Elm House on leave, she also begins to investigate the events surrounding his appearance at Wych Elm House as well as his crash. I found Jo an interesting, sympathetic character. She had to become strong early to survive, and she continues to be strong, investigating the mysterious occurrences associated with Wych Elm House.
Consistent with the author’s other books there is also an eventual romance for Jo. Without going into spoiler territory, I will say that I wasn’t fond of him in the beginning, but came to understand him toward the end. And eventually I felt that I would actually like to see another mystery featuring Jo and her partner; the author hints at some interesting directions for them.
While I thought there were rather obvious clues from the early pages about the “Familiar Stranger” mentioned on the back cover who eventually appears — there were other events I did not predict. Both the plot and the characters held my interest throughout, and have left me once again eagerly anticipating Ms. James’ next release.
NOTE: It appears that Ms. James next book – due out in the spring of 2017 – will be a departure, featuring a present day journalist investigating a mystery that occurred in the 1950s.