The Winter Guest by W C Ryan: Especially for fans of history, mystery and ghost stories - book review -
Just two years after he fought on the killing fields of France in the Great War, shell-shocked Captain Tom Harkin faces a new and bitter conflict as civil war erupts in Ireland.
But there is just one death on the mind of the dogged IRA intelligence officer who is working on an undercover mission… the mysterious murder of his former fiancée Maud Prendeville.
William Ryan – author of the gripping Captain Korolev series, set amidst the menace of 1930s Moscow, and the brilliant end-of-war thriller The Constant Soldier – has found success in his new guise as W.C Ryan, a master of the dark arts penning spine-tingling ghost stories.
In The Winter Guest – his second wickedly clever outing after last year’s haunting and memorable A House of Ghosts – he serves up a tasty, Irish-flavoured cocktail of murder and mystery, liberally sprinkled with spooky atmospherics and best read in the glow of a roaring fire.
Weaving together genres like a literary magician, Ryan conjures up the perfect winter’s tale… a page-turning, doom-laden ‘big house’ thriller absorbed from some of the finest classics but laced with black humour, a delicious helping of creepy supernatural, a dash of romance, and a haunting sense of time and place that makes each strand of the story spring to vivid, visceral life.
In the cold and fog of Ireland in January of 1921, the once grand Kilcolgan House, a crumbling bastion built on a rise looking out over the powerful roll of the Atlantic waves, is now half empty and filled with ghosts… some real and some imagined.
Inside live the Prendevilles, the noble family that took the land in the service of a Tudor monarch and have made it their own ever since. Down the centuries, they have become a ‘part of the fabric of the house,’ but they can only coexist with Kilcolgan’s ghosts and their neighbours if their secrets are kept well hidden.
But now civil war is tearing through the land and on this January night, there are unwelcome visitors in the form of IRA rebels fighting a bloody battle for independence from the yoke of British rule. Armed with rifles, the men are on a mission to ambush a car heading towards Kilcolgan House.
But the ambush goes terribly wrong and Lord Kilcolgan’s eldest daughter Maud Prendeville, the IRA sympathiser who fought beside the rebels during the infamous Easter Rising in Dublin, is shot dead, leaving her family reeling.
But the IRA outfit insists that no bullet was aimed at Maud and that she was left unconscious but alive in the ambush car. Someone else must have been responsible for her terrible fate.
Captain Tom Harkin, Maud’s former fiancé who fought in the Great War with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, is now an IRA intelligence officer. Posing as an insurance agent, Harkin is sent to Kilcolgan House to investigate her killing, and becomes an unwelcome guest in this strange and gloomy household owned by a family that is reputed to be cursed.
Working undercover, he must delve into the family’s dark secrets… and discover where, in this fractured, embattled village, each family member’s allegiances truly lies.
But Harkin too is haunted by the ghosts of the past – not least the spectre of a woman whose distinctive scent is ‘both sweet and corrupt’ – and by his terrible experiences on the battlefields. Can he find out the truth about Maud’s death before the past – and his strange, unnerving surroundings – overwhelm him?
Perfectly pitched for the dark nights, The Winter Guest is a multi-layered, twisting turning masterpiece that moves deftly through a claustrophobic miasma of bitter recriminations, divided loyalties, ghostly shadows, deadly deeds, dangerous double-crossing, and thrills that chill to the bone.
Each colourful, fully-fleshed character is exquisitely drawn and each has dark secrets that unfold as the tension mounts, the shadows lengthen, the mystery deepens and the civil war rages around both dour and draughty Kilcolgan House and a village consumed by hatred, personal demons and civil war.
Set against the stunning Atlantic coastline of Western Ireland – with its misty, murky, sea-battered landscape taking the starring role – and with the added bonus of a spectacular dénouement, Ryan’s incisive exploration of human conflict, rebellion and the grim legacies of war offers up all the perfect ingredients for fans of history, mystery and ghost stories.
Entertaining, unsettling and utterly captivating, this is Ryan at his intelligent, storytelling best. Don’t miss it!
(Zaffre, hardback, £16.99)