Simone St. James’ THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT, Or The “Undiscovered Country …

Other_Side_Of_Midnightfrom whose bourn no traveler returns,” says Hamlet – except in a Simone St. James novel says Miss Bates. St. James’ latest, The Other Side of Midnight, is dedicated to Mary Stewart, one of the mothers of gothic romance. Stewart’s spirit permeates St. James’ novels. Stewart’s spirit lives in the diffident, ethical cores to her heroines, in the mysterious atmosphere, foreboding mood, impending danger, and unknown territories heroines enter. Stewart peeks through in heroes who are ominous, frightening, ambivalent, but prove caring, loving, and protective. Stewart’s influence hints in the strength to St. James’ rendering of time and place. Stewart is present in the heroine’s venture into uncharted places, her crossing into extraordinary places, meeting, conversing with, and discovering the secrets of the dead. Stewart is present in the young, coming-into-her-own voice of the first-person narrator. In Stewart and St. James, a seemingly insignificant young woman destroys the powers of evil; she is the one who brings justice to a world disjoint. The Other Side of Midnight may not be homage to Stewart in content, but St. James places herself within a beloved literary tradition. She belongs there: after four wonderfully atmospheric novels, she’s proven her mettle and Miss Bates hopes she’ll reign long. Miss B. loved St. James previous novel, Silence For the Dead. In The Other Side of Midnight, St. James offers another hybrid mystery-ghost-story-suspense-romance novel and weaves her narrative threads for our reader delectation.

In 1925 London, Ellie Winter, an isolated, orphaned young woman, carries on her mother’s legacy. She is La Fantastique, a psychic who finds lost things. Miss Bates is suspicious of psychics: crystal balls, knocking tables, calling on the spirits of the dead, rigged scenarios and performances to take the money of the grieving, or vulnerable. She wasn’t certain she’d enjoy this heroine with her séances and woowoo. However, Ellie’s sadness, loneliness, and social isolation, were most sympathetic. Her initially melancholic voice was compelling and agreeable. Like one of Miss B’s favourite TV shows, Medium with Patricia Arquette, Ellie’s gift is painful, gives her headaches, saps her energy and strength. Her visions are not summoned, but arrive involuntarily. They’re frightening and unexpected; their source and meaning, not immediately apparent. In the opening scene, Ellie consumes a lonely meal, with thoughts of her mother and a traumatic incident that left her without the desire to ever summon the dead again. George Sutter arrives, however, with the news that his sister, Gloria, Ellie’s rival psychic and former friend, was murdered at a séance in Kent. Before she died, Gloria left a note asking Ellie to “find her.”

Gloria is an enigmatic figure, both friend to Ellie and the woman who debunked Ellie’s mother. Like Ellie, and Ellie knows this well, Gloria is a true psychic amidst the liars and fraudsters that people this seedy world. Ellie is articulate about her profession’s association with deception and its exploitation of the vulnerable. She knows what she does gives people the truth when what they want is an affirmation of their interpretations of an event, or a beloved, now dead, figure. Ellie ponders, “People came to me for answers, yet they were always knocked on their heels when I actually gave them.” Ellie understands her clients’ desire to recover something of the past, of themselves, to know a truth that is seemingly impossible. What they don’t know, or understand is what it costs the mediums they consult. She doesn’t want to help George find answers, but his mysterious menacing work with MI5, and her own sense of justice for a woman who, while she hurt Ellie, was also the only one, other than her mother, to understand her, leads to her reluctant assent to Sutter’s request.

One of the themes Miss Bates most appreciates and enjoys in St. James’ novels, and why the woowoo has purpose and is compelling, is St. James’ understanding that the most powerful spectres are history’s, and none greater than those of the Great War. Like her previous novels, the Great War’s legacy, which we still feel in Canada, Miss Bates and St. James’ “native land,” is painful. The senseless slaughter of millions of young men permeates every Remembrance Day ceremony and is recollected in every lapel poppy. St. James’ heroes are soldiers of the Great War and bear its scars: the survivor’s guilt and harrowing memories of battles and men lost. James Hawley is such a hero and a lovely one too. And yet, like Stewart, St. James’ heroes have something of the villain about them. In this case, James works as an investigator for the New Society for the Furtherance of Psychical Research. Three years ago, James was one of the investigators who subjected Ellie and her mother to three harrowing hours of “tests” that debunked their livelihood. (This scene, reminiscent in mood of one between Mingyu and Constable Wu Kaifeng in Jeannie Lin’s Jade Temptress, stands between James and Ellie.) James feels guilty for his part in it and never acted on his incipient attraction to Ellie. James is a compellingly sexy figure and the scenes between him and Ellie, though few, sizzle. Miss Bates prefers one great sizzling scene of attraction, desire, and longing to many of bedroom shenanigans. Witness, their first meeting in three years and Ellie’s impression:

He was as strong as I remembered, his shoulders bulky under the fabric of his jacket. His dark suit fit him perfectly, the shirt beneath it crisp white. I knew that his hair beneath the hat was dark blond and kept shorter than the current fashion. When he put his hands in his pockets – an ungentlemanly pose – his arms flexed and curled, and he looked almost menacing, looming over me with a lazy grace. His blue-grey eyes flickered down over me and up again, disintegrating my respectable blue suit as if it were a wisp of cloth.

… “James Hawley,” I managed, my throat tight. “What the hell do you want?”

He shook his head, not bothering to tut at my language. His voice was deep and smooth. “He’s a ghost,” he said, “that friend of yours. Sutter. Did you know that?”

“Pardon me?”

He lifted his gaze away from seeing through my clothes and looked around the square, taking in the surrounding buildings. “I can’t find out who he works for,” he said. “I’ve tried. No one is talking. I thought Scotland Yard at first, but now I’m not so certain. Now I think he may be MI5.”

That was curious; I imagined that when James questioned people, they usually talked – women because he was so handsome, men because of the size of his arms.

Other than St. James obvious skill in setting a scene and writing spare, elegant dialogue is the subtly sizzling sexiness of the scene. In working up to the scene, we’ve learned that James was a troubled vet, possibly one with a drinking problem. Menace and vulnerability to a hero is a difficult combination to pull off, but St. James manages it beautifully. Though Ellie has forgiven James his part in her mother’s downfall, in a powerful scene of power and attraction, she recalls for him the scene of his worst moment in the war, the loss of his men, particularly one who lay dying and the German officer who took James’ father’s canteen as a war prize. Yet now, James is full of health and vitality, but like Ellie, a survivor of a different kind of war, the scarring is internal and deep. Reading James and Ellie work out a relationship and solve a mystery is one of the many pleasures of The Other Side of Midnight.

At the heart of this novel’s hero is the Great War; at the heart of its mystery is the Great War. At the heart of its theme is the idea that the dead bear on the living. Justice, love, forgiveness, and restitution are possible in two strong, loving, even if somewhat broken young people; in James and Ellie, the HEA looks most promising. There are great secondary characters to St. James’ novel: Gloria’s dissipated ex, Fitzroy Todd; the dry, sardonic Scotland Yard detective, who proves Ellie and James’ ally, Inspector Merriken; the creepily nihilistic medium, Ramona; Gloria’s Mrs. Danvers-like assistant, Violetta Davies; the spectres, so eerie and believable Miss Bates had to sleep with the light on for a few nights; finally, always the war in the figures of Gloria’s three dead brothers; and, one stalking, cold killer. Mostly, Miss Bates loved the idea of the girl-heroine, a seemingly weak and negligible girl getting her men: one a killer; the other, a lover, friend, ally, and husband. Miss Bates will leave you with this final quotation in the voice of the dead medium, Gloria Sutter:

“Have you ever thought, Ellie, that we’ve been given the greatest insight into life and death in the history of mankind? The answers weren’t given to a philosopher, or a religious leader, or a great scholar, or even a man. It was given to two GIRLS, flappers who everyone sees as silly nuisances, cartoons, figures of fun. Girls who can’t even vote.”

The inconsequential girl, a humble dog (Ellie’s, charmingly named Pickwick), a handsome, strong, broken vet and all the anger and tragedy of the Great War foiled by possibility, hope for the future, and one sexy, loving couple. When St. James’ The Other Side of Midnight ends, Ellie and James are happily together and yet adrift about what to do next: Miss Bates admits she wouldn’t mind seeing them solve another mystery. 😉

Miss Bates enjoyed every spooky, sexy minute of St. James’ novel and, in the words of Miss Austen, says “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.

Simone St. James’ The Other Side of Midnight is published by New American Library (Penguin Books) and available since April 7th, in paper and e-format, from your favourite vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to the author for a courtesy copy.

Are you a St. James fan? Do you enjoy the gothic romance? What appeals to you about it? What are some of your favorites?

16 thoughts on “Simone St. James’ THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT, Or The “Undiscovered Country …

  1. You had me at “Mary Stewart.”

    I’m also with you on the benefits of sexual tension. There are Mary Stewart novels that are sexier than many of today’s open-door romances. Once the deed is done, that tension goes the way of the dodo. I’m not necessarily advocating the return of the days of chivalry and looming men, but Stewart does a great job of crafting characters who are appealing yet exude enough of a sense of danger for it not to be immediately clear whether or not they are trustworthy. That’s intriguing to us and the narrator and keeps one invested in reading.

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    • 🙂 St. James had me when I saw that’s who she dedicated her latest to …

      I loved how you put it: “Stewart does a great job of crafting characters who are appealing yet exude enough of a sense of danger for it not to be immediately clear whether or not they are trustworthy.” That’s EXACTLY what James is like and he’s, I think, St. James’ sexiest, most appealing hero yet. Even though he takes part in a pretty awful scene with Ellie and her mother. He’s not one to hold back though and he tells Ellie how he’s been biding his time to be with her: the scenes in his apartment are sooooo good. There’re also moments of his great vulnerability in recollections of the war and one scene when they discover an arsenal of weapons that is most intriguing and telling. But he holds himself accountable and is a ture knight to Ellie. The love scenes are quite mild, by erotica standards, heck by most mainstream romance standards, but they retain tension wonderfully and hold back just enough to make them even more gripping.

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  2. Woo woo with a purpose. I love that phrase. This review is absolutely lovely in all ways. Of course, you’re responsible for adding to Mt. TBR, but since I just recently reduced it by a grand total of one book, there’s a space available. 🙂

    I admit I’ve never been a really big gothic romance fan though Jane Eyre fits that category doesn’t it? And Jane Eyre is one of the books I love above all others. But I occasionally dip my toes in gothic-y type books when conditions are just right. But the moon must be in the Seventh House and Jupiter must align with Mars so that, erm, love steers the stars, etc. Sorry, not sure where Age of Aquarius fits in other than that rare celestial alignment probably mirrors how often I’ve read pure gothic romance.

    I have read a lot of Kay Hooper’s books in the past and though most are romantic suspense with a touch of paranormal elements, she has a few that I would say definitely fall into gothic romance category.

    I found some of her Loveswept category romance books in a UBS one day and enjoyed them a lot. After I had glommed as many as I could find, I realized she had moved on from strictly romance, writing more in the romantic suspense genre with paranormal elements. That’s how I found Stealing Shadows. I loved this book and her Shadow trilogy (though the second is the weakest IMO) and one character in particular. A rather fragile psychic heroine who’s at a low point-check. Enigmatic FBI profiler – check. A little mystery, a killer on the prowl, suspense, a dash of paranormal and a smidgen of romance -check, check, check, etc. Though Noah Bishop FBI profiler extraordinaire is really a minor character in this book, makes a late appearance and isn’t the love interest, he stole the show for me. Stealing Shadows had a very gothic-y feel for me. Then I had to read Hiding in the Shadows and Out of the Shadows. (The last one is my favorite because Noah’s past, his secrets, his regrets are confronted head on.) While these three aren’t truly gothic romance per se, this series and her earlier romance titles lead me to finding more Kay Hooper books. A couple come to mind that truly are more gothic-y than RS/paranormal.

    Like: Finding Laura. Elements of reincarnation, a 200-year old mirror, a murder mystery, lots of twisty turn-y plot thingies, a family with lots of secrets and idiosyncrasies, enigmatic hero, vulnerable heroine. I loved it. It was, as you say, woo woo with a purpose like Hooper’s Shadow series but with more atmospheric creepiness.

    After Caroline has lots of gothic elements too. Two women bearing remarkable resemblance to each other on opposite sides of the country, both involved in ‘fatal’ accidents in tandem but one revived, a heroine questioning her sanity, a strange house by the sea (can you hear the waves crashing?), terrifying nightmares, an inexplicable scent of roses, strangers who call her by another woman’s name, a murder mystery, and a hero who may or may not be involved in a plot to kill her. That’s a lot of story, huh?

    What I liked best in these books was how the element of uncertainty/fear/woo woo is a compliment to the romantic elements developing between the two main characters. A feeling of unease, a sense of everything slightly off kilter paired with the reward of two people who’ve face threats, both natural and supernatural, and fall in love in spite of all the crazy stuff. I mean, if you can face down the challenges of ghostly apparitions, psychic powers, AND murderers and you’re still a couple, the future looks rosy indeed. It’s a great ‘love conquers all’ (even ghosts and serial killers) message I can’t resist at times.

    Again, wonderful review!

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    • Kathy

      Once again I am struck by the fact that you are my ‘reading’ twin. I was a long time fan of Kay Hooper’s Loveswept stories and really loved her modern gothic romantic suspense. I think ‘Finding Caroline’ is my favorite–along with the first three Bishop books. (‘Out of the Shadows’ is on my keeper shelf). I do believe, however, that she has carried the Bishop series too long–I quit reading them a number of years ago as the cast list kept getting longer and the woo-woo stuff got creepier and creepier.
      You last paragraph says it all–great thought.

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      • Yay! Finding a kindred spirit is always a wonderful discovery and maybe a little magical, too. So the ‘woo woo’ factor fits right in with Miss Bates’ review, doesn’t it? 🙂

        I stopped reading Kay Hooper’s books for the same reasons you mentioned. Though I have to confess there’s been a time or two in a book store when I’ve been tempted to try again, but I just can’t wade through all the distractions. Besides, when my Noah Bishop addiction needs feeding, re-reading Out of the Shadows is much more satisfying. 😉

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    • You make these Kay Hooper books sound so wonderful: I admit I love all those elements, I want to read them. I think one of the first and most memorable films I saw as a child was Rebecca: boy, have I ever watched that over and over again through the years. I still love it so. Like you, I love the spookiness, the ambivalence of the hero … and yet, the forging of the relationship.

      Thank you for the wonderful comment! I love the trajectory of the your RS reading. 🙂

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  3. Miss Bates–your review was so enticing that I quickly added the book to my library reserve list. I’ve had mixed luck with the author’s previous books but this one looks like a winner.

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    • I loved the previous one too. I think one thing that stood out in this one is the London setting … instead of the spooky, isolated asylum of the previous one. I hope you like it; I’m prejudiced by the fact that I’m a sucker for the spirits, mystery, mood, and ambivalent hero. I also really like her heroines’/narrators’ voices. I also think this one is better paced than the previous, Silence For the Dead.

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  4. I’m definitely a St. James fan and have read all her books, including The Other Side of Midnight. I appreciate your perceptive, thorough review and agree wholeheartedly with your comments, though I would have liked more of those sizzling sexy scenes, of which there were more in her earlier novels!

    I’m also a great fan of the gothic genre. It’s my favourite genre to read AND write, but nothing can match Jane Eyre or Rebecca in my eyes! I’m pleased to see titles and authors I don’t know in the other comments here and will be looking them up! Kate Morton and Kate Mosse are two modern authors who also do a great job with the genre, though Mosse can be a little too disturbing and gory sometimes.

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    • There were more in her earlier novels!!!! Bring it on: I loved James and Ellie’s chemistry in this one. I mean that scene I quoted with the dissolved respectable blue suit was so cool. Yay, another Rebecca fan 🙂
      Now that I’ve read two St. James novels and loved them, I’m officially a fan too!

      I’m going to look for Kate Morton and Mosse!

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  5. My first gothic besides Jane Eyre was The Haunting of Maddy Clare. I then read everything else St. James wrote, and I’ve asked for her newest for my birthday. I like that St. James’s heroines are brave and inquisitive and self-reliant and that these qualities are what draw the heroes to them. The combination of mystery and romance usually works for me–there’s something about watching the hero and heroine work together to discover the truth. I enjoy Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz for this reason. Though I wouldn’t call them gothics, and though they’re much lighter than St. James’s novels, many of the more recent Quick/Krentz books incorporate supernatural elements and psychics. All of her novels are comfort reading for me, and they might be good candidates for your bathtub reading.

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    • Yay for your birthday: many years to you! And I think it’s lovely that you ask for books for your bday: I hope you enjoy it. It’s less brooding than Silence, I thought, and more of a mystery than ghost story, though the ghostly scenes are really creepy and scary. Man, I really can’t help but think I’d like to see these characters again: I really liked them and they came close to my love for Medium.

      I have quite a few Amanda Quick/JAK in my TBR!

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  6. Pingback: Another One of Those Sort-Of REVIEWS: Victoria Dahl’s FLIRTING WITH DISASTER and Betrayal in Romance | Miss Bates Reads Romance

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