Archives for March 2018

Book Review: An Unquiet Ghost, by Linda Stratmann

What’s that shadow in the doorway? That wisp of fog on the lawn?

Mina Scarletti is a young woman living in 19th century Brighton, England, and an investigator with a sharp mind. When she’s asked to uncover the facts behind a death, she must enter the mysterious world of mediums. Did the deceased succumb to natural causes, or to a murderer?

If you’re a fan of historical novels (I am), Linda Stratmann’s new book, An Unquiet Ghost, will be right up your dark Victorian alley.

Mina is small and fragile, an author with a twisted spine who regularly soaks in medicated Indian herbal baths and visits a masseuse to find relief for her back.

In Mina’s era, mediums are making fortunes summoning spirits for grieving believers. When she receives a letter from a young man who fears his fiancée is about to fall victim to one such charlatan, she decides to act, and, as you’ll read in the excerpt from the book, below, “explore the dusty veil that lay between the living and the dead.”

You can almost smell the salty sea air and hear the hiss of gaslights along the road in this third book of the Mina Scarletti series. The twists and turns will keep you reading past your bedtime—I recommend it.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary e-copy from Sapere Books, but my opinions are my own.

Chapter One, An Unquiet Ghost

Brighton, 1871

‘The land of the dead’ wrote Mina Scarletti, ‘is like a mysterious, unknowable sea. It has no horizon; we cannot see where it begins or where it ends, if indeed, it does either. It has no floor, but its shadowy depths go on forever, and sometimes, there arise from the silent deep strange monsters.’ She laid the end of her pen against her lips and paused for thought.

Mina’s busy imagination was peopled with ghosts and demons. They lived in her dreams and on the pages of her stories, but not in her daily anxieties. Other worlds, she felt, must take care of themselves while she concerned herself with more immediate problems; her mother’s changeable moods, her sister Enid’s unhappy marriage and her younger brother Richard’s inability to find a respectable career. At that very moment, however, Mina was luxuriating in the absence of any demands on her time.

Winter in Brighton was, for those who liked to stay by their own fireside and avoid the centre of town, a season of the most beautiful peace. The oft-deplored Sunday excursion trains, which brought noisy crowds to the streets, had ceased to run at the end of October. November 5th had, as was usual, come and gone without any noticeable disturbances beyond the odd mischievously dropped squib, since the annual drunken dances around roaring bonfires took place several miles away in Lewes.

The professional gentlemen and their families had taken their autumnal holidays and were long gone, and the idle fashionables were arriving. Glittering convocations, balls and suppers that were wont to go on into the small hours of the morning and disturb nearby residents with the rattle of carriages and cabriolets were held far from Mina’s home in Montpelier Road, and would not trouble her. More to the point, she had the house almost to herself since her mother was in London trying to soothe Enid, whose twin boys were teething with extraordinary vigour. Richard was also in the capital, lodging with their older brother Edward, after reluctantly, and almost certainly briefly, accepting work as a clerk in the Scarletti publishing company.

Rain pattered on glass like insistently tapping fingers, but Mina had no wish to heed this dangerous call. In the cold street beyond her heavily curtained windows breezes that carried the salt sting of the sea tore mercilessly at the cloaks of passers-by, and a steel sky clouded the sun. Mina’s small fragile body did not do well in inclement weather, and she tried not to go out too often in the winter because of the danger of catching a chill in her cramped lungs. The recent charitable bazaar in aid of the children’s hospital presided over by illustrious patronesses and held at the Dome had not tempted her, since the crowded conditions were fumed with coughs and agues. She had contented herself with making a personal donation by post. Neither had she gone to see the much talked about panorama of Paris, depicted both in its old grandeur and the conflagrations that had spelled the end of the recent violent disturbances.

Once a week, carefully wrapped against the cold, she took a cab to Dr Daniel Hamid’s medicated Indian herbal baths where, enveloped in hot towels, she bathed in scented vapour that opened her airways and eased her chest. Afterwards, the doctor’s sister, Anna, a skilled masseuse, used fragrant oils to dispel the strains arising from Mina’s twisted spine, and taught her exercises to develop the muscles of her back so as to better support that obstinately distorted column of bones. Mina had last visited the baths only the day before and consequently was almost free from pain.

Mina’s bedroom on the first floor of the house was her haven, where she sat at her writing desk, one hip supported by a special wedge shaped cushion that enabled her to sit upright, and created her dark tales. The dumbbells she used for her daily exercises were hidden at the bottom of her wardrobe. Even as she reflected on the quiet she was enjoying she feared that it was only a matter of time before the house was in some kind of ferment not of her making, which she would be obliged to address, and then her back and neck would start to pinch again, but on that blissful evening, with the fire crackling in the grate, her new composition begun, and a nice little fowl roasting for her dinner, all was well.

There was a knock at her door, and Rose, the general servant, appeared holding an envelope. Rose was a sturdy, serious girl who worked hard and uncomplainingly, trudging up and down the flights of stairs that linked the basement kitchen with three upper floors, keeping winter fires burning, running errands in all weathers, and coping with the petulant demands of Mina’s mother and the turmoil that usually resulted from Richard’s unannounced visits. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you, Miss, but it’s one of those letters. Shall I put it on the fire?’

Mina hesitated, but she had reached a pause in her work, and a moment more would make no difference. She laid down her pen. ‘Thank you, Rose, let me see it first.’
From time to time letters would arrive in a variety of hands that Mina did not recognise, addressed to ‘Miss Scarletti, Brighton’. The authors had read in the newspapers of her appearance to give evidence at the recent trial of the mediumistic fraud Miss Eustace and her confederates in crime, which had resulted in those persons being committed to prison for extortion. The unknown correspondents had guessed that due to Mina’s unusual surname, letters with such an apparently insufficient address would be safely delivered, and so, all too often, they were. Since the trial had featured prominently in both The Times and the Illustrated Police News, these letters came from every corner of the kingdom.

Some correspondents believed that they could persuade Mina of the great truth of spiritualism, and wrote earnestly and at great length on the subject, declaring their fervent belief in such miscreants as D. D. Home, the celebrated medium who had tried to cheat an elderly lady out of her fortune, and Mrs Guppy, a lady of substantial dimensions who claimed be able to fly using the power of the spirits, and pass through solid walls without making a hole. Others wanted to engage Mina’s services to investigate a fraudulent practitioner, distance of travel not being seen as any obstacle, on the assumption that she would be glad to pay her own way for the fame it would bring. There were also those who declared that she was undoubtedly a medium herself who would or could not acknowledge it, and offered to ‘develop’ her in that skill. It was with weary trepidation therefore that Mina opened the envelope, with the object of briefly reviewing the contents before they were consigned to the fire.

She found a single sheet of folded notepaper, printed with the name and address of Fernwood Groceries in Haywards Heath, a Sussex village not far from Brighton. ‘Quality! Freshness! Wholesomeness!’ she was promised, this notion being enhanced by an engraving of a plump, smiling child clutching a rusk. The letter, however, was not on the subject of foodstuffs.

Dear Miss Scarletti,

Please forgive me, a complete stranger, for writing to you, but I would not presume to do so unless I believed that you are able to assist me in a matter of great importance and delicacy. Please be assured that all I wish to humbly beg of you is your advice on a subject of which, I have been told, you have considerable knowledge.

My name is George Fernwood, and I recently became betrothed to a Miss Mary Clifton. We wish to marry in the spring. There is, however, a matter of grave concern to us, which I will not describe in this letter, but which we both feel should be resolved before we take that joyful step.

I hope you will permit us to call on you at whatever time would be most convenient to yourself.

Assuring you of my sincere and honest intentions,

Yours faithfully,
G. Fernwood.

‘Dinner in half an hour, Miss,’ said Rose, tonelessly. ‘Do you want boiled potatoes or boiled rice?’

Mina had eaten savoury rice when dining with Dr. Hamid and his sister and knew how it ought to look and taste. ‘Potatoes, please,’ she said, absently, staring at the letter. ‘And when I have written a reply to this, you must take it to the post box.’

‘Yes, Miss.’ Rose’s face betrayed nothing of her thoughts, but there was something in the tilt of her head and a slight movement of her shoulders that said ‘I suppose you know your own business best.’

When the maid had returned downstairs, Mina read the letter again, considering why it was that she had decided to respond to Mr Fernwood’s plea. His words were polite and respectful, that much appealed to her, and his object, a warmly anticipated wedding, was commendable. Mina could not see how she might help the couple achieve happiness, but the letter hinted that there might be a mystery to be solved, and she thought that in that quiet November time, such a project might stimulate her mind. As she penned a reply, she did however wonder if she was once more about to explore the dusty veil that lay between the living and the dead.  (end excerpt)

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