A Barricade in Hell is Jaime Lee Moyer’s second novel. The sequel to 2013’s Delia’s Shadow, it stars the same characters, and combines the ghost story with the detective novel. It’s a much more accomplished book than its predecessor in several respects. I feel it’s important to note, though, that it’s only loosely a series novel, and can stand alone reasonably well.
Mild spoilers below for Delia’s Shadow.
Some time has passed since the conclusion of Delia’s Shadow. It is now 1915 or 1916, and Delia has been married to San Francisco police detective Gabriel “Gabe” Ryan for about three years. She still sees ghosts, but under the tutelage of clairvoyant Isadora Bobet, she’s coming to learn how to control her abilities—and the ghosts themselves. Lately she’s been haunted by the ghost of a child, a ghost she’s reluctant to dismiss because it puts her in mind of the child she miscarried. This ghost evinces an unusual interest in Gabe—a frighteningly intense interest in Gabe—and even after Delia begins trying to send it away, it remains. And it’s dangerous: poltergeist-levels of broken crockery and shards of mirrors get flung at Delia.
Meanwhile, Gabe and his partner, police detective Jack Fitzgerald, are assigned to an odd murder investigation, where the corpse—the son-in-law of San Francisco’s police commissioner—looks as though it was ritually killed. With evidence thin on the ground, and all Gabe’s instincts troubled by this murder, they’re forced to ask Delia and Isadora for assistance on the supernatural front. Soon they discover this investigation is connected to another murder in Chinatown, and to a series of disappearances linked to the performances of travelling anti-war speaker Effie Fontaine.
And connected, too, to the child-ghost that’s been troubling Delia.
They soon discover that Effie Fontaine and her speaking engagements are more than they seem at first glance. Bringing the murderers to justice will take Delia’s skills and bravery as well as Gabe’s—and the help of their friends.
A Barricade in Hell is a smoother read than its predecessor. Where Delia’s Shadow mixed elements from three subgenres—the detective novel, the ghost story, and the romance—and thus fell into awkward compromises in terms of its pacing and emotional beats, A Barricade in Hell combines detective novel and ghost story to greater success. It’s more evenly paced, and all-around better balanced, although the conclusion and dénouement feel a little compressed. I’d have liked a little more time on the consequences. Barricade also surpasses its predecessor in its ability to evoke atmosphere: this version of early 20th century San Francisco feels a much more tangible place.
The novel is told in the first person from Delia’s point of view, and in third person from Gabe’s, in alternating chapters. At first the shifts can be a little jarring, but it’s easy to get used to, since both Delia and Gabe have fairly strong voices. It’s rare to see a married couple—a stable, affectionate married couple—take centre stage in a genre novel, especially one drawing on mystery and (albeit much modified) urban fantasy elements. It’s refreshing to see that here.
The murder mysteries involve inhabitants of San Francisco’s Chinatown this time around. Gabe and Delia receive the assistance of Mr. Sung Wing, tong leader and a man experienced in the supernatural, in the course of their investigations. Whether Moyer intended it or not, it is hard not to be struck by the fact that Sung fits into the Mystic Oriental/Magical Asian trope. How much of this is A Barricade in Hell’s fault, and how much the fact I’ve never read an SFF novel involving 19th/early 20th century San Francisco where, if there was an older Chinese male character, that character didn’t fit into a mentoring/mystic role vis-à-vis the main (white) characters, I find it hard to say. All our reading habits point us in reading characters in certain ways, and it’s difficult to break the pattern, from both a reader’s and a writer’s perspective, especially with a character who’s not a viewpoint one. In Barricade’s favour, how it characterises Sung Wing has got me thinking about the system of dispositions that create and support these readings: it’s clear that Moyer has done some research, and tried to portray a character who’s important in his own community… but his role in the novel can still be read in terms of the mystic advisor.
Despite its flaws, A Barricade in Hell is an entertaining novel. I read it in a single sitting, and I look forward to seeing what Jaime Lee Moyer writes next.