Monday, February 26, 2024

#Review - Ghost Island by Max Seeck #Mystery #Occult

 Jessica Niemi # 4
Format: Paperback, 384 pages
Release Date: February 27, 2024
Publisher: Berkley
Source: Publisher
Genre: Mystery / Occult

On a secluded island, homicide detective Jessica Niemi must investigate a drowning that is tied to a frightening ghostly legend in this riveting new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of THE WITCH HUNTER.

Jessica Niemi is put on leave after a violent altercation between her and a belligerent man makes headlines. To escape the unwanted scrutiny, Jessica travels to a remote island in the Åland archipelago and rents a room at a small seaside inn. She is hoping to be left alone as she faces the possibility that she is losing what is left of her sanity but three elderly visitors have arrived at the inn for their yearly sojourn. Jessica learns that they are the remaining ‘birds of spring’, former refugees who fled Finland as children during World War II and lived together for a few months in an orphanage on the island.

The orphanage no longer exists but the local legend about one of its inhabitants, a girl named Maija, still haunts the surviving orphans. Every evening Maija would put on her blue coat and stand on the pier, looking out at the dark water until one night, she disappeared and was never seen again. When one of the ‘birds of spring’ is found dead, drowned alongside the same pier, and Jessica learns about two other deaths from the past, also connected to the orphanage, she has no choice but to try and put the pieces of this terrifying mystery together.

Jessica can’t be sure whether she’s facing a killer or—just like the legend says—the ghost of Maija, the girl in the blue coat. Uncertain what is real and what is not, Jessica desperately searches for answers that she hopes will stop the murders and finally silence her own demons once and for all…

Ghost Island, by Max Seeck, is the fourth installment in the author's Jessica Niemi series. Or, as certain outlets are calling it, A Ghost of the Past novel. This story alternates between the year 2020, and the year 1946. Helsinki Violent Crimes Detective Sergeant Jessica Niemi is haunted by her dark past and the scars left by a coven of witches that nearly destroyed her. Jessica has faced not only a murderous cult but also human trafficking and the assassination of a government official.

Even though she is one of the lead Detectives in her unit, and has the record to back up her experience, she is having issues with dissociating what is real, and what is not. After a violent altercation between her and a belligerent man makes headlines, her boss Helena Lappi, who despises Jessica, orders her to take off until an investigation can be completed to see if Jessica's actions were warranted or not. To escape the unwanted scrutiny, Jessica travels to a remote island in the Åland archipelago and rents a room at a small seaside inn. 

She is hoping to be left alone as she faces the possibility that she is losing what is left of her sanity and likely her job as well as something she never expected. When three elderly visitors arrive at the inn for their yearly sojourn, Jessica learns that they are the remaining ‘birds of spring’, former refugees who fled Finland as children during World War II and lived together for a few months in an orphanage on the island. The orphanage no longer exists but the local legend about one of its inhabitants, a girl named Maija, still haunts the surviving orphans. 

Every evening Maija would put on her blue coat and stand on the pier, looking out at the dark water hoping that her father would come and bring her home. The parents never arrived because their ship sank. Then one night, she disappeared and was never seen again. When one of the ‘birds of spring’ is found dead, drowned alongside the same pier, and Jessica learns about two other deaths from the past, also connected to the orphanage, she has no choice but to try and put the pieces of this terrifying mystery together. 

*Thoughts* The story is told in two-time levels, so in flashbacks, you learn a lot about life in the orphanage, which was not always unproblematic, and also about the fates of the individual children. In this book, everyone is a suspect. Even Jessica. Dead bodies have a tendency to appear whenever she's around. Jessica's co-workers like Yusuf play minium parts in this story since they are afraid that they will become the next target of Helena's wrath. With the surprise the author reveals in the middle of this mystery, I find it hard to believe that there will be another installment in this series.  



The hum is so soft that it isn't really disturbing. Even so, Jessica can't help but notice it.

The other woman is waiting for her to speak, has been for almost a minute now. The thought in Jessica's head is unusually clear, but uttering it requires effort.

"I guess I'm trying to say . . . I'd anchored my life in another person's presence," she begins, and is caught off guard by the confident note in her voice. "Saw it from someone else's perspective. Does that make any sense?"

The woman sitting across from Jessica in a beige armchair doesn't immediately respond, uses the silence to encourage Jessica to continue thinking out loud. She is skilled at leading; the session seems to be progressing according to a predetermined choreography instead of there being two equals sitting there in armchairs, conversing without an agenda. Everything is clinical and coordinated, but Jessica doesn't let it bother her. She knew what she was getting into when she started her psychotherapy sessions a month ago.

"Before I met Erne . . . I was lost. I didn't understand it at the time . . . And now-"

Suddenly Jessica's voice thickens as if she is forbidden from continuing. As if someone else is forbidding her.

The therapist doesn't rush Jessica; she sits in her seat, adjusts her grip on her ballpoint pen. Retracts the tip, then clicks it back out. Under some circumstances, the intermittently repeated mannerism would make a restless impression, but the psychiatrist repeats it in a controlled fashion.

Jessica looks at the woman's angular knuckles and light blue fingernails. They're surprisingly glossy, and for this reason it is somehow brazen for them to be the fingernails of a doctor specializing in psychiatry: a client opening up her heart might have the right to expect something more conservative. More empathetic. Something that shows her therapist isn't above the situation.


Jessica looks up at her therapist's face. "What?"

There's a break in her train of thought; perhaps her brain was trying to scan for visual stimuli as an excuse for her to stop talking.

A tender look creeps across the therapist's suntanned face. "Please go on. You were saying that you were lost, and now . . ."

It takes Jessica a moment to reorder her thoughts. She doesn't actually want to reveal her insight to this woman-or to anyone else, for that matter-but at the same time she is burning with a desire to hear the conclusion articulated out loud, to let the words spill out for a professional to assess. She wants to know whether her demons are capable of dodging the psychiatrist's sharp eye, of hiding skillfully, or might they nakedly expose themselves as a result of this sudden insight?

"I guess I've never really liked my life. Or myself, actually. Then suddenly there was someone who admired me in his own way. Loved me. The way a father loves a daughter. And it gave life meaning." Jessica sits there listening to the words she just uttered, as if they echoed in the emptiness. And suddenly she is overcome with shame. "I'm not totally sure whether this is about losing Erne Or about losing a perspective that was important to me. About the fact that I didn't just love Erne. More like I loved myself the way he saw me," she continues, despite her rational mind's insistence that she stop.

The psychiatrist lowers her notepad to the armrest and presses her fingertips together.

She looks serious.

"I think we are possibly now on the cusp of something major."

Jessica cannot help but hear the massive cliché in this sentiment. Is this supposed to be the breakthrough they're always talking about on TV series?

"But . . . ?" she asks.

The therapist smiles, as if to reward Jessica for her insightful question. "But at the same time, I'm a little worried."

Jessica shakes her head because she isn't totally sure what the other woman is referring to. Not totally, although she has an enlightened guess.

"Do you feel as if your life hasn't had a purpose since Erne died?" the therapist asks, raising her head slightly. "Did that die along with Erne?"

Jessica looks at the other woman, whose face looks concerned. Perhaps it's purely professional concern, but it's concern nonetheless.

And when Jessica doesn't respond, the other woman continues: "Do you feel like at some point in your life you began to live for Erne alone?"

Jessica frowns; a rising nausea sears her throat. She reaches for her glass, takes a swig of room-temperature water, and turns toward the window. The leafless branches of the large oak sway in the wind; they crook like bony fingers stripped of flesh. The ceiling lights dim, casting the room in gloom. The hum grows louder, as if the electromagnetic potential in it is increasing.

"It's typical for people to want to please others, for instance their parents, and when the people on whose behalf we have made these efforts-which at times are in profound conflict with our own self-image-depart from our lives for good . . . the death can leave an enormous void. This void entails not only longing but also meaninglessness. The person no longer knows how to or even if they want to live solely for themselves. Am I on the right track?"

Jessica doesn't reply. She watches the branches that continue to dance outside, sees them penetrate the room through the seams of the white window frames without shattering the panes of glass. They slither across the floor and wrap around her ankles like gleaming black snakes. Gradually they tighten their grip, probe warily. "Because if that's the situation we're dealing with," the therapist says, "we need to approach it with the requisite seriousness."

Jessica blinks several times, and the lighting in the room returns to normal.

The snakes retreat, withdraw to the other side of the window frame, and freeze into trees again, as if in reverse entropy. For a moment, the yellow light in the room feels blinding.

The psychiatrist reaches for her pad and starts making notes. Jessica sees the woman's wrist move the pen but isn't sure what she's writing. Has she just jotted down the words "depressed" and possibly "self-destructive" in her leather-bound book? That would be a pretty apt description of Jessica's state, which means the headshrinker has earned her hourly fee, she supposes.

"Who does?" Jessica says, lowering her glass to the table. The nausea has overtaken her entire body; her stomach is roiling and her esophagus is burning. She has the urge to dash into the bathroom to vomit, but she restrains herself, swallows a few times.

"What do you mean?"

"You said we have to approach it seriously."

"You and I," the therapist clarifies, and adjusts her thin-framed glasses. "We've gone over a lot of things this past month and made some important observations, but today is the first time I've heard something we absolutely must address. I'd call it a hopelessness of sorts. It's important to pull ourselves out of such mental states, even if it's not necessarily easy."

Out in the freezing air, the branches stop moving until a powerful, howling gust brings them back to life. This time they don't cause Jessica to lose her focus.

"Tuula?" Jessica says, hearing how strange the name sounds when spoken out loud. It's probably the first time over the course of their brief patient-therapist relationship that Jessica has called the psychiatrist by her first name.


"Over the last couple years alone I've investigated a dozen manslaughters or murders . . ." Jessica chuckles without smiling. "When you break through a brick wall and find a beautiful young woman inside . . . or see a man who has been stoned to death, his bashed-in skull covered by a still-bloody headful of hair . . . or when you smell the flesh of someone who's been burned alive . . . which in turn makes you think that somewhere in the world dogs are cooked alive, because the adrenaline produced by the terror and pain makes the meat tender . . ."

The psychiatrist looks ill at ease and would presumably like to ask Jessica to stop in order for her to define clearer boundaries for their conversations, but she cannot interrupt her patient, not now that Jessica is giving more of herself than ever before.

"Do you understand what I'm getting at?" Jessica says, then continues before the psychiatrist has time to react: "I've never had any hope. None of us do. But in the past I guess I knew how to deal with it better. I'd accepted the meaninglessness of my own existence."

The psychiatrist shuts her notebook and presses it into her lap, under her palms. "Jessica. We need to consider the alternative that-"

A wave of nausea washes over Jessica's body, and she springs out of the chair in the middle of the psychiatrist's sentence. The nausea that began on her way here has been churning inside her for the entire session and is growing less bearable with every passing instant.

"I have to go."

"But it's only half past," the psychiatrist says in confusion, craning her neck to see the wall clock behind Jessica.

"Sorry. I'll pay for the full hour."

"That's not what I-"

"Thank you, Tuula."

The other woman looks dumbfounded but quickly pulls herself together: "Shall we book the next session?"

Jessica doesn't reply. The branches of the oak tree scratch the window, and she shoots them a quick glance.

I don't think we're going to be seeing each other again. Good-bye.


Over the wail of the wind, Jessica hears the heavy wooden door shut behind her. The sky beyond the apartment buildings peering over Kruunuvuorenkatu is a pale gray. The wet rails splitting the narrow street carry the clank of the approaching streetcar.

Watery snowflakes glue themselves to Jessica's face as she adjusts her scarf to cover her cheeks. The vomit rising from her throat compels her to lower her head. She tries to draw in fresh air through her nostrils, hopes this will deter the swelling nausea, but the cold wind only intensifies the burn she's been feeling in her nose since sitting down in the psychiatrist's armchair.

Jessica knows she won't make it home. She glances at the building portico; the ornamental iron gate is open. There's not a soul in the long, vaulted passage leading to the inner courtyard. The courtyard is her only hope; she won't make it any farther than that. Jessica takes a few unsteady steps, passes through the gate, and is glancing back a final time when the stomach acid gushes up and out of her esophagus and splatters to the asphalt.

She wipes her mouth, bends over, and retches again.

Out on the street, the streetcar clatters past. Jessica swears to herself, raises her head, and gives herself a minute. She hawks up the dregs of vomit from her throat and spits the bile-saturated clumps to the ground.

Then she hears squelching footfalls carrying from the courtyard. Someone's coming.

She quickly pulls herself up to standing and leans with her hand against the wall, but the bearded man in the neon yellow safety coveralls who has trudged out from behind the rug-beating rack has already seen too much.

"What's going on here?" he asks, standing at a safe distance with his hands on his hips. There's no concern in his voice, more rebuke: he's like a teacher who has just ambushed ninth graders at their smoking spot.

"What does it look like?" Jessica says, wiping her mouth on her coat sleeve.

"How dare you?"

"Sorry. But it's not like I asked to feel sick."

The man sneers in disgust; his face darkens. "Do you even live here?" he says, grabbing a snow shovel leaning against the building. "I don't remember ever having seen-"

Jessica doesn't answer, just turns to continue on her way.

"Hey, answer me! Are you drunk? You're going to clean up after yourself, damn it!"

Jessica pauses at the iron gate and looks back. She doesn't have any reason to behave threateningly; just the opposite: she should act in accordance with her values, apologize and explain that she simply isn't feeling well. That's the truth, after all. She would, of course, pay for the cleaning, including an extra fee for the repulsiveness of the task, if doing so would get this courtyard tyrant guarding his little kingdom to calm down.

"You're fucking drunk," he says, looking Jessica up and down.

But the building super-judging by his eagerness to call Jessica to account, that's who he must be-has through his own behavior laid a weak foundation for this encounter's dynamics.

"What if I were?" Jessica says.

The man laughs. The mouth between the pockmarked cheeks turns up in a gleeful smirk. "You can be as drunk as you want, but you're not going to make a mess of my yard, goddamn it."

"I'm sorry. I don't feel well," Jessica says, and is about to continue on her way again.

But the man won't relent. "Hey, little miss," he says, his voice a meter closer than it was before.

Little miss. Something inside Jessica blazes up.

She turns around to feel the man's thick fingers clenching her wrist.

"Let go," Jessica says quietly, but the fingers' grip just tightens.

The man brings his face closer, as if sniffing for alcohol on Jessica's breath. Apparently he's not a germophobe, considering she just puked. The jeering smile oozes with a condescending lust Jessica learned to identify long ago but would never learn to tolerate.

"Let go," Jessica says, trying to yank her arm free.

The man shakes his head and raises the shovel. "You're not going anywhere until you've cleaned up this mess. Or should I call the police?"

"Let go of me."

The man tightens his grip. Of course Jessica could tell him she's a police officer herself; an ID confirming the matter is in her wallet. But she doesn't want this guy to know any more about her than necessary. His eyes bore deeply into Jessica's, which are no doubt red after many sleepless nights. He probably thinks she's some sort of street trash, and Jessica's old sneakers, gray sweats, and black lived-in parka don't help matters.

"Goddamn junkie whore. I know your type . . . ," he says, and for a few silent moments something ignites in his eyes: maybe it's the sensation of power; maybe it's the titillation of the unexpected encounter and the situation. Maybe it's a desire to punish, to give a drunk girl some fatherly discipline. Jessica tastes the vomit in her mouth, takes in the fifty-year-old man's fat cheeks and coarse stubble. The jubilant look on his face.

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