“Specter of Seduction,” by Carolyn Haines

Carolyn Haines

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

In Specter of Seduction (KaliOka Press, November 2017),” the third book in Carolyn Haines’s Pluto Snitch series, human villains, living and dead, and a demon from another sphere collide with force and sparks. At the center of the storm, a talented young girl child appears to be possessed, or merely precocious—or possibly both, or worse.

Set in Mississippi during Prohibition, in a post-World War I era still shadowed in the Deep South by the War Between the States, Specter of Seduction is a skillfully written cross of classic mystery and classic ghost story. The haunted house aspects are so vivid and edge-of-your-seat that readers might begin yelling at the child and the protagonist: “Do not go back inside that house.”

In other words, Specter of Seduction is evocative, compelling, chilling and classic Carolyn Haines at her finest.

As with the prior novels in the Pluto Snitch series, 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. She is aided in her adventures into the spectral world by Reginald Proctor, her partner in their spanking-new private investigation agency, Pluto’s Snitch. As Reginald explains in a prior book, House of Memory, “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!”

Armed with her inherited gift of seeing the dead, plus her quick and curious mind, Raissa travels to Waverly Mansion in Mississippi, with Reginald in tow. (A quick footnote: Waverly is an actual restored antebellum house near West Point, MS, which is believed to be haunted by several ghosts, and the house and grounds are opened to the public). In the novel, Waverly is abandoned after the War Between the States, and the deteriorating mansion develops a reputation among nearby college students as haunted—but with a twist. Women brought to the grounds are said to be driven nearly wild with sexual desire due to the spirit or spirits haunting the remote house.

A bootlegger and his prim wife purchase Waverly and are in the process of restoring it when their eight-year-old daughter, Amanda, becomes oddly afflicted. The new owners ask Raissa and Reginald to stay at the mansion and help Amanda. Raissa sees at once that Amanda acts far too mature for her tender age. The child has a world-weary, seductive quality that makes at least one acquaintance suspect she has been sexually abused. Since the child’s father is a bootlegger, and a target of the local sheriff, this acquaintance casts her suspicions on him.

Amanda might be possessed at times, or at least befriended, by a ghost named Nan. An unwanted child who died at Waverly during the War Between the States, Nan is now trapped in the unhappy house. She, like Amanda, is lonely in the remote setting. The connection between Nan and Amanda evolves much as a friendship between lonely human children would develop.

Amanda aspires to become a great horsewoman and displays great skills in riding and jumping her horse. Yet her mother (and much of so-called polite society) disapproves of such unfeminine behavior. (This is during the era that “ladies” rode side-saddle.) Amanda’s mother is a sweet, but frail woman of surprisingly staid cultural beliefs given her husband’s line of illegal work and wants her daughter to behave like a young lady. A governess and a horse trainer, plus a gardener and cook who both used to be slaves on the plantation, and a host of reappearing college students who trespass seeking sexual adventures round out the human cast.

Equal in importance—and intrigue—are the former residents of Waverly, now all long dead. A violent and tragic back story of this family during the War Between the States is gradually revealed which explains Nan—but not (yet) the second and by far more malevolent spirit. A demon more than a ghost, the spirit threatens to possess Amanda and Raissa. As Raissa fights in the spirit realm to save both herself and the child, a college student is murdered, followed quickly by a second savage murder. Raissa fears she is facing both a violently strong succubus and a vicious human killer.

Haines once again spins a Southern Gothic ghost story so wonderfully complex that when the human villains are finally exposed on the last pages, it’s a total surprise, yet nonetheless makes perfect sense. That is, the climactic end is unforeseeable, yet somehow inevitable—a perfectly satisfying ending to a gripping book.

A gifted storyteller, Haines writes with a direct, crisp style that is at once lyrical and often sensual. As the menace and dangers build, the pacing and tension increase exponentially. And, when the suspense and characters are so compelling, as in Specter of Seduction, one might lose track of the fine quality of the writing itself. But this is a book that shines with refined, sharp prose. Haines has a poet’s ear for language and knows how to utilize words to set a tone, evoke a feeling, and capture a moment.

This is a great read—one you will not be able to put down once you start.

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