Author Simone St. James‘ latest novel, An Inquiry into Love and Death, is an intricate blend of mystery, paranormal and historical fiction. When her ghost hunter uncle meets his demise after falling off of a cliff, college student Jillian Leigh goes to his seaside home to collect his things. When handsome Scotland Yard inspector Drew Merriken tells Jillian he believes her uncle’s death was a murder, the two must investigate and put to rest an angry spirit. We asked the author about her 1920s-set mystery and what readers can expect from her next.
You write historically set mysteries with a touch of the paranormal. This makes for complex, interesting reads. When you begin to write a story, which aspect of the book do you focus on first?
Actually, the first thing that comes to me is character. Usually it’s the heroine — I’m very heroine-centric as both a reader and a writer. I become fascinated with who she is and what makes her tick, and then I put her into a situation that, frankly, I find interesting and want to know the answer to. The paranormal and the historical aspects sort of happen at the same time, because in my stories they feed into each other in such an essential way.
The 1920s is certainly enjoying popularity with readers and TV watchers (we are absolutely addicted to Downton Abbey!) An Inquiry into Love and Death is the second story that you set in this time period. What is it about the ‘20s that excites you?
I first fell in love with the time period through reading about the early Hollywood era. I got hooked, and it just grew from there. There’s so much that’s rich about it. There is a stereotype of flappers and speakeasies, and that’s true, but the fun had sort of a sad edge to it, as a horrible war had just finished and another was about to begin.
Photography was becoming affordable for the average person, so it’s the first era in history where we really see candid pictures of families and people’s daily lives, windows into how they lived, what they wore, people of every class. And as a writer, it’s fun to write in a time in which there are no cell phones, no air travel (at least for the average person), no Internet. The telephone and the car were pretty exciting. The popularity wave right now is heaven for me, after spending many years seeming like a strange history geek!
The early twentieth century was certainly a different time for women, especially a forward-thinking one like your heroine Jillian Leigh. What obstacles does Jillian face because of her gender?
The role of women is another thing that fascinates me about the era. The war created an upheaval in the roles of women and men – women worked during the war, and after the war was over, the shortage of men left a lot of women single and supporting themselves alone. So you have a time where young women were facing challenges their mothers had never faced and couldn’t really understand.
As for Jillian, I wanted her to be a modern young woman of the era. A girl of that time couldn’t attend Oxford unless she had her family’s money, so I gave her a family that heartily approved of her education. However, Jillian lives in a sort of bubble — there’s her family and her women-only college, and that’s it. She hasn’t fully experienced the world as it really is, and it comes as a bit of a shock. She comes up against some disapproving responses, and women like Rachel who haven’t had the same opportunities she’s had. And as for dealing with real, live men — well, she hasn’t had much chance to do that in her life. But she’s a fast learner.
Sent to the coastal town of Rothewell to settle her late uncle’s estate, Jillian begins to learn about the legendary ghosts of the area. This is not your first time writing about spectres. Your previous book The Haunting of Maddy Clare also included ghosts. Like your heroines, have you grown to believe in the paranormal?
I’ve never experienced a ghost myself, but for me it isn’t about believing or not believing. I think it goes deeper than that. I think there’s a part of every one of us that thinks it might be possible, that wonders about it at least once in our lives. Even if you don’t believe, at some point you’ve asked yourself, “what if?” That’s what I like to explore, that “what if” moment. It’s a natural human tendency, I think.
On a purely side note, ghosts just scare the heck out of me. They always have. I can’t even watch Ghost Hunters anymore!
The title of your newest story, An Inquiry into Love and Death, sets out two very important subjects of the book. The ‘death’ part is the mystery surrounding Jillian’s relative’s suspicious passing. Can you tell us more about the ‘love’ found in this book?
I can’t picture myself writing a story without a romance in it. In this book, Jillian crosses paths with Drew Merriken, a former RAF pilot turned Scotland Yard detective who suspects Jillian’s uncle’s death was not an accident. He’s put himself into a hard shell that keeps him from making too deep a connection with others, because it has served him well both in war and on the job. But meeting Jillian unsettles all of that. As for Jillian, she’s inexperienced, and she’s going through a great upheaval in life. Their connection is rather unexpected for both of them.
And there is a theme of family love in the book, as well — Jillian learns about the uncle she never really knew, and delves into her family’s past. She has to change and learn that love and forgiveness are often the same thing.
And finally, what can you tell us about your next project?
I’ve got another ghost story in the works, titled Silence for the Dead. It takes place in an asylum for shell-shocked veterans of World War I. The patients at the hospital are seeing ghosts, but of course no one believes them. The heroine is posing as a nurse for reasons of her own, and soon finds herself in far over her head. I won’t say more, except that there is a delicious romance in this one as well! It will be released in April 2014, and there is an excerpt in the back of An Inquiry Into Love and Death.