Full disclosure: Tim kindly sent me a review copy of this book.
The executive summary: Guilt is a Ghost is a fine second offering in the adventures of ghost hunter Vera Van Slyke and her assistant Lucille Parsell (nee Ludmila Prasilova).
The operative phrase is second offering: I’m honestly not sure what a reader’s reaction would be if this were the first Vera Van Slyke book they read. (Tim Prasil apparently disagrees with me). Having read Help for the Haunted first (my review here), I came into Guilt is a Ghost familiar with the two main characters, and already quite fond of them. And that’s good, because I feel there is less characterization of Vera and her friendship with Lucille in this book than there was in the previous one.
That’s not to say there is no characterization: we learn a lot about Lucille’s loving but edgy relationship with her mother, who didn’t show up much in the first book. We see more of Vera’s protectiveness of her younger protege, and I don’t remember Vera’s penchant for puzzling metaphors to be quite so pronounced in Help for the Haunted. But there feels as if there is much about the two of them –their love of beer and pubs (rather unusual for genteel women at the time, I think), their hearty appetites, some of their past associates — that’s casually thrown in, as if the reader should already know about it. It doesn’t damage the progression of the story, but it might read a little oddly to those coming to this pair of investigators for the first time.
Author Tim Prasil does take care to (re)explain Vera and Lucille’s unusual ghost-hunting methodology, and the novel theory behind it. It comes into play several times, along with more conventional investigative work, and a little bit of theatricality….
Guilt is a Ghost fills in the backstory of the relationship between Vera and Lucille. The two met when Lucille worked as a spiritualist medium, and Vera was in the medium-debunking business. This novel shows us that fateful meeting, and its tragic consequences for Lucille’s client. The bulk of the story takes place about four years later, when Vera and Lucille, now colleagues (how that happened is told in Help for the Haunted), return to Morley Mansion, the scene of that first meeting. The mansion is apparently still haunted, possibly by Lucille’s late client; the current owner hires Vera and Lucille to investigate,and hopefully lay the ghost. This puts the action of the story in the middle of the period covered by Help for the Haunted.
As with the first book, this novel features some actual historical personages, notably William James, the “father of American psychology,” philospher, and the founder of the American Society of Psychical Research. The character of Inspector Watts was apparently an actual person, too.
The mystery is engaging, all the more so for how emotionally significant the case is to Lucille. The characters are reasonably fleshed out, though I could have done without the attempts to have some of them speak in dialect. I particularly liked the character of Sophie Marchelli, with her Holmes-like powers of observation (and inference). I wouldn’t mind seeing more stories about her (perhaps with Inspector Watts).
If you’ve read Help for the Haunted and enjoyed it, then I’m sure you will also enjoy Guilt is a Ghost. If you like stories of occult detection with sassy unconventional protagonists, but you haven’t yet read the first book, then I recommend that you read if first, to fully enjoy this sequel/prequel/inbetween-quel.