This is one of my favorites among Elizabeth Peters' many books, and I've been wanting to read it again ever since I learned of her death last month. It is also one of the books on my list for the R.I.P. challenge, where I'm taking on Peril the First.
As the story opens, Henry and Ellie are driving through Virginia to the home of her Aunt Kate, where Ellie will house-sit for a couple of weeks. Henry, a rising young lawyer in Washington, is thrilled to find that his fiancée, while not yet fully trained to be the wife of a Great Man, has a rich aunt with no children of her own. He is determined to impress his new-found future aunt, but things don't go quite according to plan. Ellie waves him good-bye the next morning with a sense of relief, before settling down to enjoy her solitude (by that point, the reader is equally happy to see the back of him). She spends a peaceful, relaxing rainy day pottering the house. But that night, on her way upstairs to bed, she encounters a young man:
. . . a pleasant-looking person, with an attractive smile. His hair fell in long, wavy locks to his shoulders. He wore a brown coat with lace at his throat, knee breeches, and white stockings; and, at knee level, a low table with a vase of flowers on it. The table was the one that normally stood in that part of the hall. The man was, in a word, transparent.His appearance marks the start of a series of increasingly eerie events. Ellie suspects at first that someone is playing tricks on her, but she is forced to consider that there may be another explanation. Could there be a connection with an old book that Ellie brought as a present for Kate, a history of the oldest families in the county? She begins to hear stories, the kind that proud old families try to keep out of the history books. After she meets her neighbors, Dr. Frank Gold and his son Donald, they join her in trying to figure out what exactly is going on in the house, and who - or what - is behind it.
As Ellie stood transfixed, he went out - disappeared, vanished, like a light when a lamp is switched off.
This is a fun, adventurous story, mixing romance and mystery, with some genuinely creepy moments. Like all Elizabeth Peters' books, it has some laugh-out-loud moments as well, particularly at the pompous Henry's expense. Aunt Kate is a great character, outspoken, opinionated and eccentric, given to sudden enthusiasms like Scottish dancing and homeopathic medicine. She also collects animals, many of them rescues. Fortunately her house is large enough to accommodate the twelve cats (at least) and six dogs, not to mention a rat named Roger. And oh that house! I'd love a chance to house-sit there, ghosts or no. "The house was originally eighteenth century, but its red brick central core had spread out into innumerable wings." There is a medieval entry hall complete with refectory table, an 18th-century drawing room with its Aubusson carpet and rosewood piano, a library with three walls and a gallery overflowing with books, a "small cozy parlor in the east wing" with American colonial furniture and framed samplers on the walls. But most of all I want to move into Kate's workroom, an enormous room cluttered not just with cats, but with craft materials and musical instruments, the walls hung with pictures and posters, "as in an overcrowded and bizarre art gallery," including a map of Middle Earth. I couldn't live in that kind of chaos, but I'd love to visit.
One of the things that cracks me up about this book is that it is really a "Barbara Michaels" book, disguised as an "Elizabeth Peters" book. I'm not the first to point this out. The front cover of my TOR paperback has a quote from Marion Zimmer Bradley: "Barbara Michaels is a wonderful writer, even if she calls herself Elizabeth Peters." I've always wondered if Barbara Mertz (the author's real name) did that deliberately. She thought noms de plume were a little silly but accepted the convention. The most obvious "Michaels" element is the paranormal activity, whatever its source, which occurs in almost all of her books, but rarely if at all in the "Peters" books. The plot here reminded me very strongly of Barbara Michaels' House of Many Shadows (also a favorite), where a young woman goes to stay at a relative's isolated house in the country (in Pennsylvania rather than Virginia), and ghostly events follow, including an apparition on a staircase. Aunt Kate reminded me of a younger Mrs. Jackson MacDougal, from Michaels' Ammie, Come Home, as did the romantic pairings here, with a younger couple matching an older. The book also includes some jabs at Christians, particularly Southern evangelicals, a frequent element in the later Michaels books (and one that makes me uncomfortable). Religion plays little part in the Peters books, though Amelia Peabody Emerson is a staunch Anglican who attends church regularly, but really I suspect she and her entire family expect to meet Osiris and his judgement in the next life.
But whether this is a "Michaels" or a "Peters" book doesn't matter in the end, it's a great read either way. I may end up with more of both authors' books on my RIP list.