“House of Memory,” by Carolyn Haines

Carolyn Haines

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Something profoundly sinister is on the prowl in central Alabama. It’s the time of the Jazz Age, a spirited respite between national disasters, but what lurks and stalks young women will not be tamed by exuberant dancing or bathtub gin.

Whether the evil is spectral or human—or both—is just one of the many mysteries the talented and versatile Carolyn Haines tackles with aplomb in The House of Memory, Pluto’s Snitch Book 2 (Thomas & Mercer June 2017). As with the previous book in the Pluto’s Snitch series, The Book of the Beloved (Thomas & Mercer 2016), Haines’s new book is riveting, an edge-of-the-seat thriller cast firmly in the classic Southern Gothic mold. Haines, an award-winning and bestselling author, is a master of the genre, so readers should expect nothing less than the best—which Carolyn Haines delivers once again with House of Memory.

The protagonist, twenty-something Raissa James, is a former school teacher, a budding author, a war widow, and an investigator into the spirit world. Raissa can see the dead. Armed with this inherited gift, plus her quick and curious mind, she sets out to save an endangered friend of Zelda Fitzgerald, the lively and unconventional wife of famed writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.

As The House of Memory begins, Raissa is traveling down the Alabama River aboard a steamship heading toward Montgomery. WWI left her a widow, but the war is finally over, prohibition hasn’t dampened the South’s love of liquor, and the Great Depression hasn’t yet decimated the nation. Raissa is heading to Montgomery to answer a desperate plea from Zelda, who needs Raissa’s unique abilities.

Montgomery-native Zelda, famed for her beauty and high spirits, might well be the first American Flapper and inaugurator of the Jazz Age, but her grave concern in The House of Memory is for her dear friend, Camilla Granger, a seventeen-year-old who is locked in the state mental asylum after two inexplicable and violent attacks on her fiancé. Camilla’s mother believes her daughter is insane and pushes for a new, highly risky medical procedure, a lobotomy. The mother is not motivated by concern for Camilla, but rather seeks to “cure” Camilla so that she can marry “up” into her fiancé’s rich and pedigreed family.

But Zelda doesn’t think her friend is insane. Rather, Zelda thinks Camilla is possessed by an evil spirit. Raissa isn’t so sure at first, but agrees that a lobotomy—a “ghastly” and “unreliable” procedure—will only destroy the young woman.

Camilla’s fiancé, David Simpson, stands by Camilla, and remains committed to marrying her. But is he really the kind-hearted gentleman that he presents himself as being? Or did he do something to provoke Camilla, who has no helpful memories of the attacks? After all, Camilla twice attacked David with a knife, and she’s the epitome of a gentle, sweet young woman. Zelda describes Camilla as a non-violent “peach,” and a “tender girl.” So why would she attack the man she loves with a knife? Is she insane, or possessed, or did David do something to trigger the attacks?

Raissa begins to suspect the answer might lie in the Roswell House, an exotic, abandoned grand antebellum mansion with a troubled history, which David purchased for Camilla and himself to live in after they were married. Extensive renovations are ongoing at the house, and Raissa suspects more than dust and mortar have been disturbed in the house.

Raissa also cannot dismiss suspicions about David, and a host of others, especially the enigmatic doctor who pushes to perform the lobotomy against the prudent need for caution and delay. And Camilla’s mother, the Dragon, cannot be ruled out as she has a closet full of twisted family secrets that she would kill to keep from public disclosure.

Raissa is aided in her search for the truth by Reginald Proctor, her partner in their spanking-new private investigation agency, Pluto’s Snitch. As Reginald explains, “For those who aren’t familiar with the slang of the day, snitch means private investigator, and for those who enjoy mythology, Pluto was the god who ruled the land of the dead. Hence our clever name!”

Unlike Raissa, Reginald doesn’t see the dead, but his astute powers of observation and his keen knowledge of human nature make him a worthy partner. Though both Raissa and Reginald are young and attractive, romance will not complicate their working relationship as Reginald favors romance with gentlemen over ladies.

After Raissa and Reginald visit Roswell, Raissa believes the house does harbor a dark and malevolent spirit—perhaps something more dangerous than a mere ghost. She consults with Madam Petalungro, a famous medium in New Orleans who also has a role in The Book of the Beloved. Madam Petalungro warns Raissa of the grave danger to herself if she tries to engage this spirit. But Raissa, having visited with Camilla at the state mental hospital, is determined to help the tender-hearted young woman.

It is far from certain that the real (or only) danger to Camilla comes from the spectral force in Roswell. Someone—definitely human—attacks Raissa and Reginald on a dark road, causing an accident that nearly kills them. The human threats around Camilla come from different angles, and her stay at the mental hospital becomes so perilous that an escape plan is hatched. As more human girls are discovered dead, and more ghost girls appear to Raissa, she has to consider: Who can she really trust?

Tangled family lineages and genealogy also plague Raissa, Reginald, and Zelda as the question of who Camilla really is takes on new, and potentially dangerous, significance.

As the menace and intrigue build layer upon layer, the pacing and suspense increase exponentially. And when the suspense and characters are so compelling, as in House of Memory, it might be easy to lose track of the fine quality of the writing itself. But this is a book that shines with refined yet sharp prose. Haines has a poet’s ear for the richness of language and knows how to utilize words to set a tone, evoke a feeling, and capture a moment. For example, long before the dark force at Roswell is introduced, the eerie and evocative mood that prevails in House of Memory is set by Haines’s deft prose, sense of history, and ear for language. In the first chapter, she writes:

Impenetrable forests marked each bank of the broad river, and even in the daylight, it seemed the woods were filled with the spirits of the long departed. Indians, trappers, French and Spanish explorers, the ravaged soldiers of Union and Confederacy. The Alabama River had provided transportation for all of them. And, for many, a watery grave.

A Southern Gothic at its best—which Carolyn Haines excels at writing—House of Memory is a perplexing tale, full of troubling images, sinister motives in the human world and spiritual realm, and violence. The usual twists and turns a reader expects of any great mystery are there, and are further compounded by the ghosts. Dead young women appear to Raissa and give spectral hints, but no clear answer as to what is going on. Someone is stalking and killing young women—and that someone is stalking Raissa and Reginald even as they desperately seek to save Camilla from the threat of a risky lobotomy.

Haines is the author of 17 Sarah Booth Delaney mysteries, her successful series about a Southern belle amateur sleuth and her sidekick, a tart-tongued antebellum ghost. The latest in that series, Sticks and Stones (Minotaur Book), was just released in May of this year.

Among her many awards, Haines was the 2009 recipient of the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, the 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year, and she won in the Best Amateur Sleuth category for Bone Appetit at the RT Booklovers Convention’s Reviewers’ Choice Awards.

All the elements of a classic gothic are present in House of Memory—the potentially mad doctor, the ghosts, the good, bad, and sinister, the asylum, the stalker and the serial killer, and the haunted house at the center of the story. In less skillful hands, the tale could quickly devolve into cliché, but Carolyn Haines is far too talented a writer to let that happen. The story reads as fresh, enticing and exciting as if it were the first Southern Gothic. This is a book to own and read.

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  1. This is a fantastic review Claire. Who wouldn’t want to read The House of Memory after reading. Another book for the TBR pile! But I think I’ll move it to the top of the heap.

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