In her latest novel, Simone's heroine, Jo Manders is living in 1921 England. She's the paid companion to Dottie Forsyth. This job is all that stands between Jo and poverty. Her husband Alex was listed as missing in action during World War I after his plane was shot down over Germany and his body was never found. Jo is alone in the world, except for her mother. But, her mother is institutionalized and doesn't really know who Jo is, and lives completely in her imagination. Dottie is Alex's Aunt, and in a roundabout way, the closest thing to family Jo has besides her mother. But that doesn't stop Dottie from taking advantage of Jo's situation.
Jo travels with Dottie to the family estate in the countryside outside of London. Wych Elm House is a bit neglected and was the site of the suicide of Dottie's fifteen year old daughter Frances. Three years previously, Frances had jumped to her death from the top of the Wych Elm House. Village stories of Frances and her demon dog haunting the woods around the estate cast a eerie miasma around the home and all who lived there.
It doesn't help that Jo sees Frances sitting in the parlor on her first day at Wych Elm. Yes, Frances is dead. And Jo just saw a ghost. Why is Jo seeing Frances around Wych Elm? Why is Frances trying to get Jo's attention?
Jo's intuition tells her that Frances didn't commit suicide, but was murdered. But by whom and for what reason would someone kill a fifteen year old girl? Was it her own mother, Dottie? Or perhaps Martin, Frances' older brother, who is recovering from terrible wounds suffered in battle, and addicted to morphine. Or was it the stranger found dead in the woods the same day Frances died?
To top it all off, Jo is haunted by not knowing what happened to Alex, the love of her life. She's convinced she doesn't know the whole story, and Alex's role in the military was more than she realized. This becomes even more complicated in Jo's mind when she finds out Alex was at Wych Elm House the day Frances died, when he never told Jo he was even in England. Why the secrets?
I've got to say Frances' presence in this one is a bit creepy only because her appearances seem random and she never says anything. Frances makes things move around, appear and disappear. The atmosphere at Wych Elm House is cold and unwelcoming, even though it is a beautiful country home. You read the book and can feel that damp fall weather and bone chilling cold that keeps Jo struggling to stay warm. Even reading this in very hot temperatures and uncomfortable mugginess (summer in Iowa!) made me want to grab a blanket for warmth and comfort.
I've really loved all of Simone St. James' books, but I have to say this was my least favorite. I can't put my finger on it, but I felt her previous novels had a more solid storyline and were definitely up a notch in the paranormal element. I will certainly keep reading anything Ms. St. James has to offer in the coming years; I just hope she keeps giving me chills in the middle of the summer.
Rating: 6/10 for an interesting story line, but one that could have had more paranormal creepiness. Historical background was very interesting, and you can tell the author does her homework.
Available in paperback and e-book.