Thursday, November 03, 2016

Spiritualism at the seaside: Jessica Estevao's Whispers Beyond the Veil

The seaside resort town of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, is the setting for this enjoyable first novel in a new lightly paranormal mystery series. In 1898, Ruby Proulx finally manages to escape her controlling father, a traveling medicine show hawker, but the circumstances are less than ideal.

For years, the pair had peddled nostrums and other miracle cures to unsuspecting “rubes,” but after Mr. Proulx’s newest scheme turns deadly, Ruby must flee Canada and hope the aunt she never knew will take her in. Her Aunt Honoria’s establishment, the Hotel Belden, is a haven for Spiritualist seekers, a fact that could prove tempting for a young woman who’s an expert fraudster. “If I had not promised myself to go straight, the temptation to feign psychic ability would have been overwhelming,” Ruby admits.

Ruby’s narrative voice is an engaging mix of youthful vitality and not-quite-innocence, and she herself hears a voice that guides her at opportune moments. However, she’s never been comfortable with her clairaudient ability and isn’t sure whether to trust it or anyone. She worries her past will catch up with her. The cast is large, ranging from the diverse psychic practitioners and servants employed by the hotel, their guests, local police and businessmen, and the Indians who travel from the Canadian Maritimes every summer and make a living from the tourist trade. The setting feels realistic and draws readers into a world of parasols, bathing costumes, and social calls, plus grimmer realities like a late 19th-century version of gentrification.

The first half concerns Ruby’s quest for belonging and the search for a pickpocket who attacked her when she first arrived in Maine. The real crime happens quite late in the story, but clues are carefully planted for readers to find, and the ending leaves sufficient threads for the next volume.

Whispers Beyond the Veil, first in the A Change of Fortune mystery series, was published by Berkley in September.  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review's November issue.  Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access.

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