Delia’s Shadow, Jaime Lee Moyer. Tom Doherty, September 2013, ISBN 9780765331823. Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
You should know before reading this review, dear Ideomancer reader, that Jaime Lee Moyer is among my friends, and that she was previously associated with Ideomancer in the capacity of poetry editor for some time. That said, I’ve always tried to keep my good or bad opinion of a book separate from my good opinion of its author, and I think I’ve succeeded here.
Because Delia’s Shadow is a weird book. A weird, genre-mixing patchwork quilt of a novel, a novel that weaves elements of ghost story, historic mystery, and romance into a (mostly) coherent whole. In many ways, it reminds me of Deborah Coates’ Wide Open, another novel-with-ghosts from the same publisher which obstinately refuses to slot neatly into the urban fantasy role its cover copy implies — although in other ways, it’s very different.
The setting: San Francisco. The time: some years after the earthquake of 1906 but before the Great War. Delia Martin has returned to her hometown at the prompting of a ghost. She’s seen phantoms her whole life, but this is the first time one of them has demanded anything of her. Though the ghost — of a young woman — cannot speak, Delia knows she wants something. Delia just doesn’t know what.
In San Francisco, Delia’s best friend, socialite Sadie, is about to marry police detective Jack Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald and his partner, Gabe Ryan, are involved in investigating a series of brutal murders. Murders that bear strong resemblance to ones from thirty years before. It transpires that Delia’s ghost is intimately connected to those murders, and connected, too, to the people around Delia. With the assistance of bohemian spiritualist Isadora Bobet, Delia and her company can discover the identity of the killer. Doing it before he targets the people close to them, now: that’s the trick.
So much for the ghost story mystery. The romance that develops between Delia and Gabe Ryan, whose perspective provides the second of the novel’s two narrative viewpoints, plays as important a role in the unfolding story as any question of murder. The compromises in pacing this hybridisation demands at times seem to pull the shape of the story out of kilter: the book’s first half puts its focus into relationships, the second half into murder, and the seams don’t join as well as they might. But with a debut novel, one should expect a few leaky seams, and the characters are vivid and entertaining.
Moyer’s hand with vivid characters, however, isn’t replicated in scene-setting. It may be merely that I’m used to novels of the early 20th century set in Europe or the colonies of the European powers (or at the interface between European power and indigenous nation), novels riddled with concerns of class and propriety of all kinds. Perhaps America before the Great War was a more egalitarian place, but Delia and her companions’ lack of concern with social stratification makes the book seem very modern, and makes me peer suspiciously into its corners. Those corners make me quite sad, for what they conceal by omission: this is not a novel that can boast a diverse cast. Sadie’s black housekeeper Annie is the only person of colour with a speaking role, and the only person identified solely by her first name. This seems something of a waste of the rich potential of San Francisco as a setting. The choice of all-white all-American protagonists in a more prejudiced time is safely unchallenging: the cast of privilege renders the story insulated, turning a tale of serial murder and stalking ghosts into something rather cosier.
For all my complaints — and for all that the ghost story has never really been my cup of tea — weird and genre-crossing as it is (and disappointing in its lack of social engagement), Delia’s Shadow is almost compulsively readable. It’s a promising, though flawed, debut: here’s hoping Moyer continues to improve.