Source: Review copy
Publication: 3rd October 2019 from Zaffre Books
Winter 1917. As the First World War enters its most brutal phase, back home in England, everyone is seeking answers to the darkness that has seeped into their lives.
At Blackwater Abbey, on an island off the Devon coast, Lord Highmount has arranged a spiritualist gathering to contact his two sons who were lost in the conflict. But as his guests begin to arrive, it gradually becomes clear that each has something they would rather keep hidden. Then, when a storm descends on the island, the guests will find themselves trapped. Soon one of their number will die.
For Blackwater Abbey is haunted in more ways than one . . .
I’ve have wanted to read A House of Ghosts ever since I heard William Ryan talking about it at Iceland Noir last year, so now that the paperback is being released in October, I have my opportunity.
William Ryan writes with delicious precision, creating a fabulous atmosphere that is both redolent of the era of Agatha Christie and clearly of the WW1 spy era. This is a book for winter nights; one to read while you are wrapped up all warm and toasty with a stiff drink beside you, because William Ryan’s writing makes his ghostly apparitions transmit their chilling ways from the pages of the book until the cold seeps into your soul.
Our protagonists are Kate Cartwright, a plucky and spirited young woman diverted from her rather boring intelligence work to provide cover for agent Donovan when they travel to Blackwater Abbey, home of a major munitions manufacturer, Lord Highmount. Kate’s parents will be there, and she has reluctantly agreed to travel as the betrothed of her ex-fiancé in order that Donovan can travel as his manservant.
Of course there is a spark between Kate and Donovan which grows as the pair face danger and death together and this creates a pleasing undercurrent to this murder mystery and espionage story.
Blackwater Abbey is on a small island off the Devon coast. The pretext for the weekend is that there will be at least one séance to try to establish what has happened to Lord and Lady Highmouth’s sons, both of whom are missing in action. To aid in this, there are two spiritualists, Count Orlov and Madame Feda. What neither of them knows is that Kate Cartwright has been seeing ghosts since she was young; something she shares with no-one, though her mother is well aware. Against the background of a dark and turbulent storm, Kate and Donovan will have to put all their wits together to solve the mystery of who the murderer is and why.
What makes this book chilling and indeed haunting is not the ghosts who swirl around the ancient house though; rather it is the knowledge of how many young men are dying on the front and why they are dying. Ryan’s writing is beautifully descriptive and his narrative arc sets out just how these boys (which is what many of them were) died for reasons other than being slain by the enemy.
The calculations of the War Office, the commercial considerations, and the way in which those in control were subject to malign influences and outright corruption all play into a sad story of tragic loss of life, alongside a good espionage story.
Verdict: Ryan has penned an intelligent, fast paced adventure story with a dash of romance and a gallant hero in war torn Britain. I enjoyed his two protagonists who are never patronised and I’d happily read another book with these two characters.
William Ryan is the Irish author of five novels, including
the Captain Korolev series set in 1930s Moscow. They have been shortlisted for
numerous awards, including the Irish Fiction Award, the Theakstons Crime Novel
of the Year, the Endeavour Historical Gold Crown and the Crime Writer
Association’s Steel, Historical and New Blood Daggers.
William lives in London with his wife and son and is a licensed mudlarker and keen cyclist. Not both at the same time.