The year is 1922. Sarah Piper, living on her own in a London boarding house as she is without any family, is barely making ends meet with work provided by a temporary secretarial agency. The agency calls with an assignment just as she returns from a disconsolate walk through a bone chilling drizzle: she is to go to a nearby coffeehouse to meet the man in need of an assistant. After a brief debate over the propriety of meeting a strange man alone versus the (non) payment of her rent, now two weeks overdue, she decides for the potentially improper choice. Alastair Gellis, a ghost hunter, is in need of a female assistant–he has a male assistant already–as he has been hired to exorcise the ghost of the eponymous character, who cannot stand men in death, or rather in haunting, as she was terrified of them in life.
Seven years prior to the events of the book, Maddy Clare came stumbling, mute and filthy, from the woods to the Clare household. The Clares could only guess that she’d been through an experience so traumatic that she lost the ability to speak, and indeed Maddy remained terrified of all men1 until her death despite the family’s care, but the family kept her as a sort of kitchen maid out of charity. She committed suicide by hanging herself in the family barn shortly before the book begins, leaving only a note saying “I will kill them.” and a vengeful poltergeist, presumably Maddy herself, to render the barn unusable. Piper is sent into the barn with a rudimentary tape recorder, only to be sent screaming from the barn by the ghastly (and ghostly) manifestations. Piper and Ryder (Gellis’ original assistant) do end up sorting out the haunting possession and put Maddy’s spirit to rest though not before said spirit offs the perpetrators of the crime against her person. (Gellis is himself possessed by the spirit through the crucial plot pivots.)
The title’s rather ambiguous: Maddy Clare is the ghost in the story, but in life was troubled–she is simultaneously the one doing the haunting and the one being haunted.
Despite the book’s setting ninety years ago, it has a much more modern feel, at least to me. Perhaps it was the language generally reflecting the style of a modern author, or perhaps I’ve just read too many books written by authors from that period, and any discrepancy between the author’s style and the time period in which the book is set is jarring to me. Sarah Piper eking out a life of penury in the absence of parents, brother or spouse doesn’t surprise me; that’s at least believable in a society that’s just been through a devastating war. There weren’t so many options for women at that point. Even her employer being a temporary agency is at least plausible; I’m not sure they were called ‘temporary agencies’ in the 1920s, but there were businesses which provided secretarial support then as now, at least if you believe the Golden Age of Detection Authors, and certainly there were businesses which approximated the modern employment agencies.
I think what bothered me most is the speed with which Piper fell into bed with the “mysterious assistant with a dark past”; I’m not saying that people didn’t fall in love as fast then as now, nor even that they didn’t do the nasty prior to marriage, just that I was expecting a book written in the tone of the ’20s. It didn’t help that I’ve come to think of “shell shocked WWI veterans” as an overused plot trope. This isn’t fair to the authors, as in truth I can only think of two who used it: Dorothy Sayers and Charles Todd. Nor is it fair to the many soldiers who did come back with that problem which has had a different name with each war–shell shock, battle fatigue, PTSD–as it’s a very real and very debilitating problem. In this case, it just seemed to be a ripoff of Wimsey and Bunter: a wealthy landed nobleman with crippling shell shock, assisted by his faithful NCO who stuck by his side after the war ended because he realized that [insert blueblood here] still needed his help. I finished the book, mind, and even enjoyed it a great deal, but the writing style was in no way that of a period piece.
1yes, said traumatic event turns out to be about what cleverer readers are guessing