Delia’s Shadow is the debut novel of a newcomer to the fantasy scene, Jaime Lee Moyer. The story is set in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, and the action centers around the butchery of a serial killer. The assassin uses the Pan-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 as his personal stockyard, similar to the factual Dr. H.H. Holmes at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago as described in The Devil in the White City.
The tale in Delia’s Shadow, however, is fictional, and includes a paranormal element, as our heroine Delia has the preternatural faculty of being able to see ghosts. Delia had fled the city after the 1906 earthquake, when the presence of vast numbers of spirits from the victims of this disaster threatened to unmoor her sanity. One persistent specter, who we learn was a murder victim of an earlier killing spree, has sought Delia out and inexorably persuaded her to return to San Francisco to help solve the crimes. Out of the ugliness and depravity of the homicides, Delia manages to find love with the chief investigator through shared experiences of losses from the earthquake and concomitant desires to prevent further casualties of the serial killer.
The story here is very well-constructed and makes for a spooky, captivating read, particularly for the cool, windy, early-darkness of fall nights. The details and descriptions are adroitly painted with a post-Victorian, pre-modern texture and feel. Moyer’s writing, however, somewhat lacks the passion and ardency that this fictional genre almost demands. Her characters are kept at arm’s length and the reader is unwillingly left feeling like the voyeur, peering at the action through a window instead of being in it.
Part of the issue is the mixed perspectives in which the book is written. The chapters are divided into multiple characters’ points of view, with Delia’s written in the first-person voice and all others in the third-person. The intent seems to be to keep us abreast of all the action, while highlighting a close vantage of Delia’s experience and ghostly visions. The net result of these multiple, intra-chapter frame shifts, however, is a sort of average middle-distance perspective which contributes to the reader’s estrangement.
Overall, Moyer is a very talented writer, possessing all the storytelling skills necessary to write a very good novel. But like the best dancers, who don’t merely offer up their dance, but convey an invitation to the audience to join, a writer needs to entreat the reader to come into the story and not leave them outside peeping in the bushes.