… from 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?”
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?