Reviewed by Jeanne
A young man in a Gentlemen’s Club in England makes the acquaintance of Sir James Monmouth, an older member who asks that he read a manuscript about certain events in Sir James’ life. This request comes about after a discussion among some of the younger members regarding ghosts. Most of the rest of the book is the manuscript, a first person narrative by Sir James about an experience in his youth. As the story begins, Monmouth is newly arrived in England after being reared abroad by a guardian. He’s traveled in many exotic lands, but the death of his guardian has left him in want of direction. Accordingly, he has come to London in search of material on the mysterious Conrad Vane, a travel writer whose adventures excited young Monmouth’s imagination. He has been able to find very little in the way of autobiographical information on Vane, so he hopes to find enough to write an article or perhaps a book on the man.
His inquiries about Vane seem to draw uneasy responses from those who knew of him, but the fascination remains strong and he sets off for a school Vane attended. He is cordially received but instead of answers he seems to find more questions. Vane seems as elusive as ever. Then he begins to experience a series of somewhat unsettling events. . . glimpses of a pale young boy, sounds of sobbing from an unknown source, and strange dreams—or are they dreams?
Hill wrote the (to my mind!) classic Woman in Black, and this book reminds me very strongly of that title, as it uses a similar framing sequence for the main story and is written as if it were a Victorian memoir. Also like that title, the book doesn’t wrap things up in a neat little package at the end. There’s a lot to ponder and things alluded to but no cut and dried resolution. This is not a complaint. I rather prefer it to easy answers, especially given the subject matter. After all, the supernatural is all about mysteries and questions, not certainties. Her characters are memorable, even those playing small roles, and the settings are extremely vivid.
If you’re not in the mood for long, descriptive sentences or if you’re hankering for action, this isn’t the book for you. On the other hand, if you like lots of atmosphere, dank halls and meager fires, strange weeping in the night and fevered dreams, mahogany tables and baize doors, then this might just be your cup of Earl Grey. I must say it cooled down my perception of a humid July day quite nicely, what with the snow and cold winds beating against windows. I almost got out a quilt.
(Yes, I had to look up to see what a “baize door” was. Apparently at one point doors were covered with cloth to help soundproof them; green baize is often used on gaming tables, such as those for blackjack or billiards.)