Elizabeth Charles is a young social worker, dedicated to an onerous case load and to what little help and relief she can offer the far too many abused and neglected children in New York. On her way to investigate a report of suspected abuse, Elizabeth suffers an odd hallucination and loses all sense of time and place. The illusion, while disturbing and deeply disorienting, is a brief one and, when it subsides, the concern it causes must be temporarily set aside with the urgency of dealing with Milagros, an endearing child, clearly intelligent and mature well beyond her years, who is obviously in desperate danger if she remains living with her mother and a violent, abusive and obviously psychopathic stepfather.
When her father dies in a plane crash and leaves her everything he owns, Elizabeth Charles becomes an independently wealthy young woman and can acknowledge to herself that she is far too deeply involved with Milagros on a personal level and she is simply incapable of maintaining professional objectivity as a civil servant and a social worker who must deal with multiple cases simultaneously.
She also allows herself to admit that the disturbing hallucinations she is now regularly experiencing have an eerie reality which beg for further investigation. With the help of a paranormal psychologist, Elizabeth is drawn more and more deeply into a tangled historical family web that dates back to the death of a young woman in the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911.
Despite this being a debut effort, Patricia Riley Leyden clearly has the chops of an accomplished author. Her characterization is superb. Elizabeth Charles and her lover, Mark Lewis, her deceased father's fiancée, Regina Jordan, the abusive stalker, Chet King, and the caring psychologist, Doris Fisher, to name only a few of the characters, are colourful, realistic and exceptionally fully developed. Her description of the deep, caring, warm and cautious romance between Lewis and Charles is heartwarming and believable without once resorting to describing anything more sexual than a kiss or an embrace. The funeral scene that celebrates the life of a policeman shot and killed in the line of duty just about broke my heart!
ST JAMES PLACE is many, many things. It's history; it's a multi-generational family saga; it's a suspense thriller; it's a paranormal thriller; it's a psychological thriller; and, it's a romance. In fact, if I have a criticism at all, it's that ST JAMES PLACE is simply too ambitious and it's too many things at once. The story of the rescue of the abused child, Milagros, from almost certain death at the hands of stalker Chet King seems forcibly intertwined with the plot of the hallucinations and the family story from 1911 New York.
I wish I had had the opportunity to talk to Ms Leyden before this book was published. My simple comment would have been that she is obviously a skilled writer and had more than enough material, ideas and plot to support two fabulous novels. As it is now, the two stories crowd one another for space without actually supporting one another. In the space of less than 300 pages, the novel reads quickly enough and is certainly enjoyable but neither sub-plot is given the full development they so richly deserve.