I can’t believe I almost forgot about Jonathan Stroud. His Bartimaeus trilogy was one of my favorites when I was in middle school/high school, but I never thought I would find another one of his books, because for some reason I believed that he hadn’t written anything else after that series. It was pure chance that I learned about this book at all – I can’t remember which of my Goodreads friends put this on their to-read list, but someone did, and I happened to be looking at my feed at the exact right moment, so whoever it was, I thank you. It’s been at least ten years since I read the Bartimaeus books, and going back to Stroud’s writing was like catching up with an old friend.
Like his previous series, The Screaming Staircase concerns supernatural elements and takes place in Stroud’s signature setting, London in an unspecified time period that feels like it should be the Victorian era but isn’t (seriously, I don’t know how Stroud does it – there’s never anything in his books that specifically says “we’re in the reign of Queen Victoria right now,” but somehow that’s always how I imagine the setting, and then I’m totally thrown off whenever someone starts talking about plastic or microwaves). With the Bartimaeus trilogy, it was demons and magicians. Here, it’s ghosts.
The book starts out in media res, with teenagers Lucy Carlyle and Anthony Lockwood going to ghost-bust a haunted house. This is a great way to open the story, because we get to see Lucy and Lockwood in action and learn about their specific ghost-hunting gifts (Lockwood can see death-glows, and Lucy is an empath who can hear spirits and their emotions) without needing to sit through lots of buildup and exposition. It’s only after the ghost-hunting section is over, and we’re fully hooked, that Stroud has Lucy explain what’s going on to the reader. About fifty years ago, she tells us, England was beset by “the Problem.” Ghosts started appearing every night, and worse, they gained the ability to hurt people – Lucy talks about “ghost-touch,” which can kill a person. Ghosts are invisible to adults, but children can see them, and have psychic abilities that fade when they grow up. So now ghost-hunting has become a profession in England, and the ghost hunters are all children and teenagers (which is a very neat solution to the central problem found in most YA-adventure lit, the question of why children are always running around unsupervised with weapons and magic). The worldbuilding is fantastic, with Stroud fully exploring what a society threatened by ghosts would look like: city-wide curfews are enforced, because ghosts only come out at night, and houses have to be protected with iron and channels of running water to keep the ghosts out. As I said, ghost-hunting has become an official profession, and Lucy works for Lockwood & Co, a pretty ragtag agency consisting of her, Lockwood, and another boy named George (who has been rather unfairly left off the cover of every edition of this book).
The job that’s described in the beginning of the book is what starts the action. Lucy and Lockwood discover the body of a girl who was murdered fifty years ago (and is therefore the source of the haunting). The murderer was never caught, so the group starts trying to figure out who killed the girl, while also trying to keep their agency from going bankrupt. Then they get hired to investigate one of the most haunted buildings in England – a mansion that houses the screaming staircase of the title, and also “the Red Room” and don’t worry, it’s just as terrifying as it sounds.
The writing is sharp and witty, although none of the kids can match Bartimaeus in snark. All of the ghosts are legitimately terrifying, and both haunted house sequences are suspenseful and delightfully scary. The characters are well-done and fun, and Lucy is a fantastic heroine.
This was the only wobbly part of an otherwise well-paced, witty, scary, and well-written story – the haunted mansion and the murder investigation seem like two separate stories, and don’t really mesh well together even after we learn how they’re connected. The murder mystery itself is pretty good, but it’s solution is so weak that I had to take a star from the book’s rating. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that it’s one of those very irritating mysteries where the culprit is only caught because they kept doing shit to scare someone off the case, like every villain in every episode of Scooby-Do ever. It’s doubly irritating, because there was really no good reason for the culprit to prevent the kids from investigating the murder (it’s a fifty-year-old cold case and the body and the crime scene were destroyed in a fire, for Christ’s sake) and the whole scheme was clumsy and unnecessary and hurt my mystery-loving heart.
But like I said, all the great aspects of the story more than make up for the weak mystery subplot. The book can almost function on its own as a story, although there’s some setup for a sequel at the end, hinting that we’re going to learn more about Lucy’s abilities and the origins of the Problem. I’ll have to track down Book 2 as soon as I can.
Verdict: four out of five stars