Fiona walked slowly into the middle of the room. The hair on the back of her neck felt cold. Suddenly she didn’t want to take pictures. She didn’t want to be here at all anymore.
Idlewild Hall, a home for troubled girls, shut its doors in 1979; in 2014, a renovation financed by an anonymous benefactor unearths the secrets surrounding the disappearance of an Idlewild student in 1950 and the discovery of a girl’s body on the property decades later.
- Supernatural touches are chilling: Mary Hand’s ghostly skirts move silently across dirty floors; her pleas for help echo behind locked windows; her black veil blows around her as she stands in the middle of an empty field. Most terrifying, however, are the dark secrets Mary knows and the haunting way she uses them to torment the living.
- The four Idlewild girls—Katie, Sonia, Roberta, and CeCe—are strong characters on their own, but are a force to be reckoned with when they are together. The bond between them is unbreakable, and their loyalty to each other is unmatched.
Gothic elements are great tools for heightening the suspense in a mystery novel. Take, for instance, the atmosphere of Idlewild Hall. It is especially cold and eerie, both in its operational past and its decaying present. Upon her arrival at its gates in 1950, Katie observes the structure is “lined with peaked windows that looked like rows of teeth” and she feels as if she is “traveling into the jaws of the building”. 64 years later, Fiona has similar thoughts as she tours the now ruined building with its broken windows “looking like eyes that had blinked close” while the “rest of the windows grinned down the driveway at approaching cars”. Idlewild isn’t simply a few buildings; it is a being that will eat a person alive if they aren’t strong enough to survive. And if Idlewild doesn’t, Mary Hand, the ghost roaming its halls and grounds, might. St. James uses these elements strategically, mostly in the past plot line: A hint of Mary’s presence here. A shadow of unease there. A sense of isolation everywhere.
Characters are compelling and St. James’s writing transitions smoothly between the dual timelines and multiple viewpoints. The past plot line, which follows a group of students in 1950, is an emotional one. These girls have been sent to Idlewild by their families to be hidden away and have been hardened by the reasons why. They have no illusions about their lots in life; they know they were put at Idlewild to be forgotten. St. James takes her time telling each of their stories, slowly revealing each girl’s layers and building the tension until one of the girls vanishes. And it is a loss that hurts, for both the reader and the remaining girls.
The main plot line is equally engaging, but less gripping. In 2014, freelance journalist Fiona Sheridan is still obsessed with the murder of her sister twenty years earlier, despite a culprit being tried and sent to prison for the crime. When she finds out that Idlewild Hall, the place where her sister’s body was discovered, is being restored, she sees an opportunity to answer lingering questions and find closure. She has spent two decades trying to come to terms with what happened to her sister, but has only succeeded in pushing her pain further inside of her; writing an article on Idlewild’s renovation might be the key to finally accepting her sister’s death. While touring the property, though, the body of a young girl is found in a well and Fiona dedicates herself to finding out who the victim was and why she was killed.
Loosely linking the events of 1950, 1994, and 2014 together is Mary’s ghost. By refusing to leave Idlewild Hall for more than a century, she has witnessed everything. Her story is itself a mystery to be solved.
In The Broken Girls, St. James masterfully weaves together Mary’s tragic turn-of-the-century tale, the events leading up to the disappearance of an Idlewild student in 1950 and the aftermath of her body’s discovery 64 years later, and Fiona’s search in 2014 for answers to the questions still surrounding her sister’s murder. I love a good mystery. I love a good ghost story. The Broken Girls is both.