Whispers Beyond the Veil by Jessica Estevao is the 1st in a dazzling new historical mystery series, nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel!
When you mention Spiritualism, medicine shows, and con-artists in the same sentence, you’re either talking about my weekend or tempting me to read your book. When I heard about Jessica Estevao’s Whispers Beyond the Veil, I knew it was right in my wheelhouse of Victoriana and spooky things.
Ruby Proulx grew up in a medicine show, hawking fake elixirs for everything from gout to hair loss and reading tarot cards for a bit of extra cash. Though Ruby knows it’s all smoke, mirrors, and body language, occasionally she hears a voice that seems to offer guidance, either for her or her sitter. She usually heeds its words, but the one day she elects to ignore the voice, it brings disastrous consequences.
Ruby flees her life in Canada, risking everything to find an aunt she’s never met but whose photograph she’s kept since her mother Delphinia’s death. Aunt Honoria resides in Maine, and Ruby prays she’ll be taken in. To her relief, Honoria is overjoyed to meet Ruby, the spitting image of her late sister. But, Ruby fears she’s gone from one scam to another: Honoria owns the Hotel Belden, a spiritualist and psychic retreat boasting in-residence mediums, clairvoyants, and astrologers. Unfortunately, it seems a murderer may be in residence as well.
For me, the book got off to a rocky start, and the first point is really my inability to read all the words in the synopsis. I was inordinately excited to read a book set in Victorian Canada. To my knowledge, I’ve never read any book set in Canada, so yes, I was disappointed when Ruby and the narrative ended up in Maine. There’s nothing wrong with Maine, and I’m sure it’s a lovely place, but it did derail a bit of my excitement. It’s not the book’s fault. Don’t blame it for my mistakes.
However, the opening chapters do suffer from a pacing issue and a lack of interiority. The scenes within the medicine show feel rushed, where they should be explored and expanded since they’re the entirety of Ruby’s life. Also, I didn’t really get a sense of who the secondary characters were, especially since one of them plays a major part in the inciting incident that sends Ruby to Maine.
There stood my father, up on the makeshift stage. Lantern light glinted down on the brown glass bottle held outstretched in his hand. A hot wind pressed and flapped the canvas stretched above his head. Scents of sweat and hay and dusting powder melded in the unseasonably hot air. But Father appeared cool as a slice of iced melon at a picnic. He strutted and strode and worked the already-heated crowd to a fever pitch by calling out all the cures and wonderments Dr. Parkhurst’s Miracle Elixir would provide if only his listeners would part with a dollar.
Johnny and two other Maliseet men sat in a semicircle around the edge of the stage chanting in low tones, lending a bit of credence to the notion that the cures Father stood hawking were passed on to him by an Indian medicine man.
Johnny, mentioned in the quote above, sits down for a reading with Ruby, who predicts a change of fortune. The next day, Ruby’s father sets up to test The Invigorator, which is basically an electroshock machine, and since Ruby overslept, Johnny volunteers to try it out.
I think you see where this is going.
Trouble is, I don’t feel anything about Johnny’s impending doom. He shows up only to serve as way to incriminate Ruby and send her on her way. I wish the author had taken more time to develop his character, or at least show us how Ruby felt about him. Obviously, she feels terrible about killing him (who wouldn’t?). But, were they friends? Did she think he was annoying? I don’t know.
Despite the rough start, the book picks up speed once Ruby arrives in Maine, trailed by the ghosts of her past and swearing to start a new life, hopefully free of cons. The hotel is teeming with psychic staff, but Honoria is in a great deal of debt, having mortgaged the hotel to afford a sooner opening date. However, after her intended medium, Flora Roberts, backs out, sending another woman in her place, Ruby volunteers her services. Things go well until Mr. Leander Stickney checks in.
“‘May I be so bold as to ask the nature of your business?”
“I’m astonished that your aunt didn’t mention it to you.” He turned back to Honoria.
“I thought it possible you wished to remain anonymous.” Honoria looked unruffled but I felt a wave of fear as icy as the North Atlantic cascade over me from head to toe.
“I make it a point to be forthcoming with all my investigations.” He turned to me once more and his gaze felt challenging rather than friendly. It took every bit of self-control not to squirm and back away. “I am the president of the Northeastern Society for Psychical Research.”
“And what is that, sir?” I asked.
“I should have thought someone in your line of work would have recognized the name of my organization immediately.”
“You must forgive my niece, Mr. Stickney. She is newly arrived from Canada and has only recently come into the open about her gifts. Such a well-known organization as yours would be unfamiliar to her. I, on the other hand, am honored by your attentions.”
“That explains her ignorance. Allow me to enlighten you, Miss Proulx. I am the head of a group that seeks to prove the possibility of all sorts of psychic phenomena from mediums to soothsayers to ghostly apportments,” he said. “Sadly, most of what I do is to unmask frauds.”
The Society for Psychical Research is a still-functioning collective of men and women determined to prove the existence of psychic phenomena, which started in the 1880s with the rise of Spiritualism. It was nice to see some form of them brought into play, and when Mr. Stickney ends up dead, the hotel is prime place to look for suspects.
Ruby, naturally, fears she’ll be marked as the killer and her past in the medical show will be revealed. It doesn’t help matters than Officer Warren Yancey thinks she’s a fraud, cheating his poor mother out of her hard-earned money.
I like that Ruby is a self-possessed Victorian woman and isn’t afraid to stand up to him. Men don’t control women, and Yancey has no say in what she does or who she visits. I wish Ruby’s friendship with Lucy, Yancey’s sister, had more development. I have the feeling they’d be trouble. The upstart independent woman brand of trouble, which is, of course, my favorite.
Whispers Beyond the Veil has some interesting characters, a few turns, and some funny moments. However, I do wish some of the secondary characters had made more than one appearance. I’m deeply enamored with hotel secretary Ben, who never utters a single word the entire book. I find him fascinating, and I want to know more. Also, there are instances where the point of views shifts to Officer Yancey, causing me to feel drawn away from the narrative.
I will say that there are more than a few loose threads left dangling at the close of the book. As this is the first in the series, I’m hoping they’ll be caught up and tied as it progresses, but it does leave a poor taste in my mouth—especially since they feel dropped and not intentionally left. There’s no clue leading us into the next book, which is fine—I enjoy when books in a series read like standalone novels—I just wish there was more of an overall conclusion.
Whispers Beyond the Veil is a nice, light read with a few surprising revelations and a sassy unconventional heroine. It’s setting of Old Orchard’s pier and resort town makes it good fit for a beach read, whether on the sand or tucked away in your room with a dazzling view of the ocean.
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Meghan Harker grew up in a small, awkwardly-named town in Georgia. She attended Brenau University, where she earned her BA in English and a minor in Graphic Design; she also attended the University of Cambridge, England, where she didn't quite master the perfect Oxbridge accent. She's an avid reader, writer, and fire spinner. She's currently working her first novel, a paranormal thriller. Visit her blog at ExquisitelyOdd.com.