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Silence For The Dead by Simone St. James

Silence For The Dead is the third novel by Simone St. James.  It was released in April, and since my reading habits have been hit or miss and otherwise sporadic when it comes to reading books, I've only now gotten around to reading it.  This was the other book I was reading when I started Without Warning.  I've previously read and reviewed St. James's two previous novels, The Haunting of Maddy Clare and An Inquiry Into Love and Death, here on the blog.  AND St. James will release her next book, The Other Side of Midnight, next April.  This book was rather terrifying, not unlike her others; however, the supernatural aspect was much more subtle, but no less scary and insidious.

Set in 1919 in rural England, Kitty is a young woman on the run from a bad childhood, an abusive father, and only God knows what else.  Thus, she holds herself out as a properly trained, credentialed, and experienced nurse in order to land a position at Portis House, a very isolated, very mysterious sanatorium for war veterans suffering from shell shock.  At Portis House, due to its isolated locale, staff and patients alike live on campus and its isolation and room and board make it attractive to Kitty.

Built on an island connected by a single, wind buffeted and treacherous bridge to the mainland, Portis House was once the luxurious residence of a wealthy Swiss expatriate family named Gersbach.  The parents Gersbach kept their family to themselves, rarely mixing with the folk who lived in the nearby village on the mainland.  But now the Gersbachs have disappeared from the mansion, having dismissed their servants and decamped to parts unknown.  The abandoned residence was then converted into the present mental sanatorium now home to nineteen shell shocked veterans struggling to recover their mental health in the wake of a brutal war.  However, despite its idyllic, isolated location and the still relative newness of the mansion, the structure itself has abnormally quickly fallen into decay in the year since the disappearance of the family  Gersbach.  In addition to decay, its patients' mental illnesses are exacerbated by the inherent darkness resident to the mansion that preys on the mental fragility and fears of its inhabitants.  Plagued by chilling nightmares, visions of a man who does not exist, mysterious noises in the walls and ghostly possessions, the already fragile mental stability of the patients descends further into madness.

Kitty isn't one to follow the rules, which is how she comes to meet and bond with the mysterious 'patient 16' a.k.a. the national war hero, Jack Yates.  Soon Kitty realizes that the house itself preys upon the men, that the Gersbachs may have never left the island, that the decay of the house is connected both to their disappearance and to the state of the present atmosphere of the mansion.  But Kitty can't solve this mystery on her own, so she reluctantly teams up with Jack.  The pair do some clandestine detective work, but before they can put the pieces together to reveal the whole picture of the brutality that took place on the island, a near natural disaster combined with a medical emergency further cuts off the sanatorium from the mainland, placing the remaining patients and staff alike in mortal danger.

There are some characters that I really hated--matron, couldn't stand her, although she is revealed to be a rather misunderstood character by the end of the novel; Roger the orderly and his beady little eyes were really nasty.  Dr. Thornton should have lost his medical license and been thrown to the wolves.  And Creeton was mean, nasty, cruel, and so angry, and I wasn't sorry when they locked him up and threw away the key (belated spoiler alert).

A thoroughly frustrating element of the story is the stigma attached to mental illness, the 'treatment' (or lack of) the men receive for shell shock, the attitudes of the staff towards the patients, while true to the time period, was extremely disheartening and heartbreaking.  The very people who should be helping these veterans are blind to the effects the house has on the patients' psyches.  And the so-called doctor responsible for the care and recovery of these men can't be bothered to learn their names, take proper notes during group sessions, or show a modicum of compassion.  One wonders about the true motives of the mysterious, absent Mr. Deighton, who owns and runs the place but does not live on campus.  And if the Gersbachs never left, why didn't anyone investigate their disappearance?  And how did the sanatorium move onto the premises in the absence of any present owners able to legally sign the property over?

I highly recommend this book.  Fans of historical period drama, ghost stories and mysteries will all enjoy it.  And if you haven't read St. James's previous novels, I also recommend them.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

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