Book Review: The Last Party by Clare Mackintosh – a new promising new detective series in a moody North Wales setting

I saw Clare Mackintosh’s name connected with fellow suspense/mystery author Lisa Jewell, and being a fan of Jewell, decided she should be worth a shot. Like Jewell, Mackintosh has written a bunch of twisty mysteries, but The Last Party is the first in a series featuring Welsh detective Ffion Morgan. I like being in at the start of a promising crime series, and was soon glad I’d picked this up.

The mystery starts with the discovery of a dead body by swimmers braving a New Year’s dip. We’re in the remote village of Cwm Coed on the shore of a lake which borders England. Across the water is a luxury resort called The Shore, built by a couple of investors as holiday homes for the wealthy. These incomers don’t support the village shops, they zip around the lake on jet skies and are just generally obnoxious. So it isn’t surprising that the corpse turns out to be one of the investors, a Rhys Lloyd.

With a name like that you’d assume the victim’s Welsh. And he is – a local made good in the sense he’s become a successful star of stage and screen, and knows how to turn on the charm. His mother still owns the hardware store in the village, and it was his father’s land that he and his partner Jonny Charlton have turned into The Shore. Their New Year’s Eve party was supposed to bring everybody together and appease the villagers, but it all ends in murder. The story soon throws up a fair few suspects – it turns out Rhys is struggling to pay off creditors and his charm hides a darker persona.

DC Ffion Morgan is on the spot – she’s local, still living with her mother and sister in Cwm Coed, but for all that she’s something of a lone ranger. She drives an old Triumph at tearaway speeds over the winding rural roads and has a burning secret. She’s also shocked to discover that her one-night stand from the night before is the English cop assigned to assist on the case.

DC Leo Bradey is an intelligent and promising police officer from Cheshire, with a whole lot of baggage. His ex-wife is going out of her way to exclude Leo from being a parent to their young son, whom he adores, and his boss makes him the butt of all his tasteless jokes. Working with Ffion doesn’t get off to a great start either, but they slowly form a team. They soon discover that hardly anybody doesn’t have a motive for killing Rhys Lloyd.

The Last Party is a much better than average murder mystery. Clare Mackintosh is a former police officer herself so the story has a ring of authenticity. However, there’s a lot more than police work here. Family dynamics, old scores and the effects of burying damaging secrets all add to a character-driven, atmospheric read, the evocative setting adding a ton of interest.

As well as the dangers of the lake, there’s snow to contend with and the story builds to a life-and-death climax that has you on the edge of your seat. This is helped by a plot that switches back and forwards in time and between characters, mostly Leo and Ffion but also the key players and suspects. I was fair racing through the chapters to see what happened next. And then there are the twists.

For a diverting crime read, The Last Party doesn’t put a foot wrong and introduces a fabulous pair of detectives I’ll be happy to meet again. I’ll happily give it four stars. A Game of Lies, the next Ffion Morgan mystery, is due to be released later this year.

Book Review: Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith – back to Italy with a gorgeous evocation of place and atmosphere

Well, yes I know this book is about a lot more than its setting. There’s a man’s lingering grief for his late wife. A family of elderly women and a secret they never got to grips with from World War II. There’s some parent-child dynamics and a potential love affair. And all of it comes together in a captivating story that maybe takes a little while to get going, but once you get in, has you nicely hooked.

But when I look back on this book in months and maybe even years to come, I know it will be the setting that I’ll think about first. Valetto is Dominic Smith’s invented town in Umbria, which sits on a pedestal of volcanic rock. Much of the old town has fallen down into surrounding valleys, a 1971 earthquake urging many of its inhabitants to relocate. It has become a kind turreted and terracotta island, connected to the surrounding landscape by a footbridge.

Hugh is an American historian who specialises in the study of abandoned towns – there’s hundreds of them dotted around Italy and what better place to begin than Valetto, the childhood home of his mother and where even today his grandmother and three aunts still live. The Serafino women, all widows, are a big chunk of the population which has dwindled to just 10. In a few weeks it is to be his grandmother’s 100th birthday and a party has been planned.

A spanner in the works is the woman who has taken possession of Hugh’s cottage on the Serafino property, supposedly given to her mother for services rendered when Hugh’s grandfather, Aldo, was a resistance fighter during the war. Elissa Tomassi is adamant that the cottage is legally hers, just as Hugh’s aunts are convinced she’s a squatter with no legal tenure. Hugh is sure there can be a way to keep everyone happy and is caught in the middle. But he has to get to the bottom of what happened during the war and discovers not one but two family mysteries to solve.

The past will take Hugh back to Elissa’s home town in the north of Italy to find out what Aldo did in the closing years of the war. He’ll also discover a link between his mother and the Elissa’s that is a trickier memory to unlock and will reveal a crime that has been swept under the carpet. The story builds to a powerful and moving conclusion that has you glued to the final chapters as past deeds are dealt with.

What could be done with the wreckage of the past? As a historian I’d always believed that studying the past could reveal hidden meanings and patterns, that motifs lurked in the underbrush, but now I saw the neap tide of history washing up flotsam on an empty beach.

I enjoyed Return to Valetto enormously, not only for the setting which seems to be a big part of every scene. The late autumn mist across the valley that comes and goes and adds even more mystery. The large old villa that is the Serafino home with its cavernous rooms and crumbling frescoes. There’s the old family restaurant established by his grandmother, where you can see abandoned place settings and dusty menus from a night in 1971. (Oh, did I forget to mention this books is also a hymn to Italian regional cuisine?)

And the characters are a joy. The three aunts, each with their own peculiar ways and at times difficult interactions with each other. I have a particular fondness for books about aunts, going back to P G Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster stories, and here Iris, Rose and Violet are brilliant. The grandmother with her iron determination to host an unforgettable birthday celebration with an ever-growing guest list and a despairing cook. Both Hugh and Elissa have daughters that make an appearance, so it’s an inter-generational tale as well.

I can’t help feeling Dominic Smith had a wonderful time researching and writing this book as his love for history, particularly social history, as well as all things Italian shines through. This is the second novel by this author I have read and recall that Bright and Distant Shores was one of my top reads for the year it came out. I’ve heard lots of good things about The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos as well. Return to Valetto gets the full five stars from me.

By the way, the fictional town of Valetto is inspired by Civita di Bagnoregio in Lazio – in case you want to visit, either in person or via the Internet.

Book Review: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles – the rocky road to adulthood in 1950s America

The latest novel from Amor Towles, author of A Gentleman in Moscow which I simply adored, is quite a different kind of book. Perhaps Towles needed a change from setting a novel almost entirely within the confines of a hotel – albeit a fairly grand one.

This time he’s taken us on a kind of road trip. And instead of a man of experience and taste as our main character, we’ve got several friends around eighteen years old, young men who met at Salina, a correctional facility for youth. It’s 1954 America – a conservative period full of opportunity. But these are lost boys, lacking parental love and guidance, having to overcome a misstep on their path to adulthood if they have a chance of making a life for themselves. We see them as they set out to do this in different and at times conflicting ways.

First up is Emmett, whose father died while he was away, leaving a farm in hock to the bank, awaiting a mortgagee sale. His younger brother, Billy, only eight, has been cared for by the neighbours, a farmer and his kindly, maternal daughter Sally. She has a soft spot for Emmett, but can only show this by cleaning the boys’ house and bringing them lovingly cooked meals. Otherwise, she’s usually giving Emmett a piece of her mind or stony silences.

After Emmett has been returned to his family home by the warden, Duchess and Woolly, two escapees from Salina, surprise Emmett, having stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car. Duchess has been worried about sensitive, childlike Woolly, who has been struggling. So Duchess, an impulsive charmer, has taken matters into his own hands, seen an opportunity to save his friend, and get his hands on enough money to set them all up in life.

Sensible Emmett is appalled, having promised to take Billy to California in search of their mother and build a new life with the small stash of savings his father has left him. So many side-trips, diversions and interruptions hamper Emmett’s best of intentions and the four of them end up heading for New York one way or another.

Billy’s one consolation all the time he has been missing his mother, his brother’s time in Salina, his father’s passing and the loss of their home, has been a compendium of epic journeys by the heroes of literature – Achilles, Jason and Theseus for example – one for every letter of the alphabet. That and a handful of postcards written by the boys’ mother showing her progress west. And the best way to get there according to Billy is the Lincoln Highway.

I learned a lot of interesting things in this book. How to ride the empty cargo wagons on a freight train while avoiding being clocked by the guards. A trick with a cork and an empty wine bottle. How if you plan to stowaway in the trunk of a car, put teaspoon in your pocket so you can pop the lid when you want to get out.

The funny thing about a picture, thought Woolly, the funny thing about a picture is that while it knows everything that’s happened up until the moment it’s been taken, it knows absotively nothing about what will happen next. And yet, once the picture has been framed and hung on a wall, what you see when you look at it closely are all the things that were about to happen. All the un-things. The things that were unanticipated. And unintended. And unreversible.

Echoes of Billy’s compendium appear among the characters – not only the journey the boys take to New York, but in the helpful cargo train rider, Ulysses, who rescues Billy from a thief posing as a preacher. As you can see the novel has a picaresque quality about it, and that reminds you of stories like Don Quixote and Candide with the varied people the boys meet, the kind and the duplicitous, and the continued reversals of fortune.

And then you have the allusions to the tragic heroes like Macbeth who have a fatal flaw that can so easily lead them into disaster. Each of the boys has his own character fault that led him astray and on to Salina, and which they each must master if they want to avoid disaster. So the characters are affected not only by external events of fate or coincidence, but by those of their own making, their desires and needs.

There is so much going on in The Lincoln Highway I am sure I need to read it again to get the most of it. But again, Towles is such a delightful writer that every sentence is a joy. Situations that have the reader sighing an “Oh, no!” are nicely balanced with humorous ones and the story is paced and developed perfectly to its conclusion. I possibly didn’t like it quite as much as A Gentleman in Moscow, but it’s still a four and a half read from me, and I can’t wait to see what Towles comes up with next.

Book Review: Paper Cup by Karen Campbell – walking in the shoes of a character at odds with the world

It can’t be easy to write from the point of view of a homeless person, particularly one like Kelly. She’s around fifty, an alcoholic whose thoughts never seem to stray far from where she’s going to get the next drink. You might think this makes Paper Cup uncomfortable reading too. And sometimes it is. But far outweighing all that is Kelly’s story and her telling of it. It helps that there’s a bunch of interesting and amusing characters around Kelly and the argo of Glasgow adds a touch of Billy Connelly. You might wonder if Glaswegians ever take themselves seriously.

Paper Cup is a kind of road novel, beginning during a Glasgow evening when a bride-to-be on her hen night makes a connection with the person dossing on a nearby bench. Fed up with the indignities of her evening, bride Susan flings down the bag of pound coins she’s earned for kisses from strangers but accidentally loses her engagement ring. Susan will be heading back to Galloway for her wedding a week away, and she’ll be aghast to discover her ring’s missing.

Kelly has been running from the past, a past that began in Galloway and has caused her to cut ties with her father and sister. What happened ruined Kelly’s life, setting her on a path of self-destruction and she’s been running from it all ever since, losing herself in alcohol. Suddenly, over twenty years later, there’s a reason to go back, and she has a week to get there. Along the way Kelly will meet people who help her, though many avoid her – she smells after all. And in her unlikely way, she’ll help others too, even saving a life and rescuing a dog. Kelly unwittingly becomes the unlikeliest of heroes and very readable.

She abhors it, this strange adolescent fury she feels. And this sharp recall of past events that keeps bowfing out on her – she doesny want that either. What is her mind playing at, opening doors and shaking out corners?
Just leave it well alone, Kelly.
Well, I’m trying, Kelly, I really am, but it seems we are running away with ourselves.

While it’s a kind of redemption story Paper Cup is also packed with humour. The way Kelly just brazen things out, getting away with all sorts, to feed and clothe herself – but then when you have nothing but what you carry with you, sometimes it’s the only way. She finds herself joining a kind of pilgrimage of sacred sites around the coast. She’ll learn about a leper colony and about two women condemned as witches for not adhering to the local faith. History repeats in its casting off of those who don’t fit in.

The novel is also reasonably pacy. With her deadline of one week to reach Susan before her wedding, there are moments when you feel Kelly hasn’t a hope of making it on time. And her wild disregard for rules throws her up against forces that want to stop her, including her own demons. Meanwhile she’s caught the attention of the news media who want to tell her story. You desperately want to give Kelly a hand and fortunately, eventually, someone does.

Paper Cup is a brilliant, heart-felt read, the writing is stunning and it will have you thinking. The next time you come across a homeless person, you might feel inclined to throw a coin into their paper cup. Or maybe you won’t. Either way, you might think about what has happened to them to bring them to the streets. This novel is one of my top reads for the year and gets a well-earned five out of five stars from me.

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – a mystery that brings a marshy wilderness to life

I may be the last person I know to read this novel, but with the movie causing a lot of chat – both positive and negative, I thought it was about time.

Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those novels that sweeps you away. You can’t help but get lost in the world of Kya, abandoned by her family, by anyone she takes a shine to, but just gets on with the hand she’s dealt. The story starts in the early 1950s when Kya’s six, living with her family in a shack among marshes on the North Carolina coast. Her father’s a violent drunk with PTSD from his war service and has fallen out with his own once-grand family as well as his in-laws.

Kya’s mother is the first to leave and you struggle to understand how she could walk out on her family, particularly young Kya. But she’s a victim of so much abuse, it’s all she can do to get herself to safety. Soon Kya’s brothers and sisters leave too – they’re just old enough to make a life for themselves, but it’s a shame no one thought about their little sister. Meanwhile Kya, who teaches herself how to cook and keep herself alive, avoids the worst of her father’s mood swings, until he too leaves.

Kya has avoided school. Her single day in the classroom a rude awakening to prejudice and bullying. Still just a kid, she has learnt to navigate the marshes in her dad’s old boat. She discovers that the elderly black man who sells fuel, also sells fresh mussels so Kya finds a way to support herself. Thank goodness for old Jumpin’ and his kindly wife who look out for Kya, offering used clothing and affection.

And thank goodness for Tate, the boy a few years older, who teaches Kya to read and write. This opens doors for Kya and she is obviously very smart, soon recording the wildlife in her marsh not just with her collections of feathers and shells, the self-taught watercolours, but now with written descriptions too. But Tate is off to university and his life is set to take him in a different direction.

The story jumps forwards to 1969 with a murder investigation when the body of popular motor mechanic Chase Andrews is found at the bottom of a defunct fire tower. Did he fall or was he pushed? Sherriff Ed Jackson finds no fingerprints and enough to suggest foul play and soon his attention turns to the Marsh Girl. The old prejudices against Kya have never left and she becomes an easy scapegoat.

The murder investigation propels the story along, while weaving in Kya’s backstory, her growing up and her relationships with two young men. This is interesting enough, but what really makes the book special is the way Delia Owens brings the marsh to life – the watery passageways, the plants that grow there and the wildlife. This is described vividly in Kya’s distinctive voice which helps you see the world through her eyes.

“Crawdads” is an engrossing read and the character of young Kya as she learns to make a life for herself both heartbreaking and fascinating. The court case against Kya is gripping too, although I did find the plot lagged a little in the middle. And I couldn’t help thinking of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which kind of skewed my reading of this novel. Perhaps this earlier work was an inspiration for Owen’s book or it may have just been me. I guess it’s true that every reader reads a different book. “Crawdads” gets three and a half out of five stars from me.

Book Review: The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher – old crimes surface in Aussie Noir mystery

I remember when Jane Harper’s stunning novel The Dry hit the shelves and suddenly we all wanted to read more Australian crime, or Aussie Noir as we soon called it. And all the while it seems Australian author Garry Disher has been producing reliably readable and award winning crime thrillers for years. I’d heard of him of course, but this I am ashamed to admit is the first Garry Disher novel I’ve read. At the end of which I could only shake my head and ask myself, what took me so long?

The Way It Is Now is Disher’s latest stand-alone novel. It’s about Charlie Deravin, a police officer on disciplinary leave who has nothing better to do or anywhere else to go but the old family beach house on Menlo Beach. While there’s plenty of surfing and Christmas to think of – his daughter’s visit is something to look forward to – there are reminders of the past at every turn.

The son of a cop, Charlie grew up in a society where the friends who came to family barbecues were other cops. And some of them are still around. But the most haunting thing for Charlie is the disappearance of his mother when he was a rookie policeman part of the team looking for a boy missing from a school camp. Assumed drowned, the child disappeared the same day as Charlie’s mother, a high school teacher who’d just popped home unexpectedly. Her car was found abandoned with evidence of a struggle. Newly separated, many people pointed the finger at Charlie’s dad.

The story weaves Charlie’s memories of the past with his ongoing relationship with his brother who hasn’t spoken to his father since, and his father now ailing but still receiving poison pen letters. There’s also the case Charlie has been suspended from, which caused him to fall out with his boss, but also brought a new love into his life. Anna was a whistle-blower in a case of jury tampering and someone’s trying to silence her. So nothing’s going well for Charlie. As Charlie uncovers the past, two dead bodies are found at a construction site and the police see even more links to Charlie’s dad. But Charlie has seen the toll the unsolved mystery has taken on his father and believes in his innocence. The book becomes a race to prove his innocence while the old man begins to fade.

While the plot is complex and interesting enough, humming along with plenty of suspense, Disher really excels with his characters. Charlie is likeable enough but flawed – the disappearance of his mother niggling in his mind for twenty years. This has put a strain on his marriage to say nothing of his work in Vice. There’re the old-school cops that he bumps onto at the beach, particularly Mark Valente who was like a second father to young Charlie and epitomises the old-boys club of local cops. Minor characters are no less interesting

While Valente seems a benign presence, he evokes a sense of not rocking the boat and keeping the past in its place. Charlie’s brother Liam loathes the man for his homophobic attitudes. Misogeny also lurks throughout the book – his mother’s nervousness around her lodger, the nasty rape case that was Charlie’s downfall, the attitudes to police wives. Disher brings it all to life in a way that seems authentic and adds a tone of menace.

I enjoyed The Way It Is Now as an audiobook, which was superbly read by Henry Nixon and made me feel I was at the beach on Australia’s Victoria coast. Disher evokes the Australian landscape well, so I’m going to see where else he takes me. This books gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: It All Comes Down to This by Therese Anne Fowler – a compelling sisterly drama

Stories about sisters seem to pop up in all kinds of literature. They’re in those fairy stories I loved as a kid (Cinderella, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Snow White and Rose Red), several Jane Austen novels, to say nothing of King Lear which we read in high school. What is it that we like about sister stories so much? Is it because you get to see a family from several different angles? Whatever the reason, I absolutely devoured It All Comes Down to This.

The book starts out in New York – another plus for me – where Marti Geller is getting her affairs in order. She has only a couple of weeks to live and is remarkably calm about it; the hospice people are wonderful. She has written in her will that the family cottage in Maine is to be sold and the proceeds divided among her three daughters. This creates a mixture of responses from the sisters, particularly as she has chosen her son-in-law as her executor.

Beck is appalled at the idea of the sale. The cottage has been their vacation home for decades, even if no one’s been there in a while. Her sisters could use the money, but Beck is looking for a bolt-hole. With her children grown-up she wants to finally write that novel. She’s an accomplished journalist, but the novel has been in the back of her mind for years. It doesn’t help that her husband Paul is an editor for a publishing company that has nurtured award winning novelists. Having him peering over her shoulder just stifles any creative juices. Secretly, Beck wonders if Paul might be gay.

Middle sister Claire is recently divorced, having admitted to her husband after too many drinks at a party, that he wasn’t the love of her life. She still carries a torch for someone else. As a girl, Claire struggled to compete with assertive Beck or pretty younger sister Sophie, the family darling, so she worked hard at school. Now Clare’s a paediatric heart surgeon, still with a huge student loan to pay off. The divorce has been another financial burden and she’s got a young son to think of. Selling the cottage in Maine would be a godsend.

While her older sisters married early and settled into family life, Sophie is single at thirty-six and trying to live the dream, or at least what her Instagram followers think is the dream. She works for an art gallery in New York, using her bubbly personality to seal deals with up and coming artists and their buyers. This involves travel and looking the part and being at all the right parties. She has maxed out all her credit cards and lives out of two suitcases, house-sitting to put a roof over her head, while everyone thinks she has a flat of her own which she sublets. Sophie could definitely use a hefty cash injection.

The narrative cycles between these three women as well as Paul, who has a burning secret of his own and C J Reynolds the cottage’s prospective buyer. C J is interesting in that he’s just served a term in prison for shooting at his father. Another character with family baggage. He settles into a friend’s lavish home on Maine with the idea of buying in the area and is surprised to have to share the house with two other unusual house guests: an elderly patrician woman and her newly orphaned grandson. This creates some wonderful scenes as the three learn to get along with each other.

The story burbles along between all of the above characters and while they are likeable enough, the author doesn’t shirk from showing us their faults and foibles. The story is paced nicely as Beck does her darnedest to hang on to the cottage and the lengths she will go to. Claire’s story is more of an emotional one while Sophie gets in a tighter and tighter spot as her financial house of cards looks set to crumble.

So, as I said, I simply plowed through the book, thoroughly entertained and curious about how it would work out for all five characters. But to tell the truth the ending fell a little flat for me. Was it a bit too fanciful, a bit rushed? Or was it that when it came down to it, I found the sisters just a bit foolish, annoyingly so even, and not quite likeable enough. So this one’s a three and a half out of five from me. I’ll still hunt out more books by this author though.

Book Review: The Driftwood Girls by Mark Douglas-Home – a twisty mystery involving fiction’s favourite oceanographer

I’d almost forgotten how much I’d enjoyed the previous ‘sea detective’ mysteries and so this book almost slipped under my radar. It’s been a while since The Malice of Waves, Douglas-Home’s previous novel about his beleaguered oceanographer sleuth. Cal McGill runs a small business out of his Edinburgh flat, mapping ocean currents for clients who are missing things – often loved ones – lost at sea. He has pictures of flotsam and jetsam on a pinboard that dominates his living/working space, some of them rather grisly. So yes, he’s an odd sort.

It’s not unusual for him to find himself in a tight spot and at the start of The Driftwood Girls everything seems to be going wrong. After talking to an elderly man who looked set to jump from a bridge, the news media have labelled him as the bad guy when the old fellow disappears. Clients have dropped him like a hot potato and he’s almost out of cash. Then he learns that his old uni friend Alex is dying and is called to make good a promise to bury him in the middle of Alex’s favourite lake, which being illegal, will have to be done post-burial and under cover of darkness.

Out of the blue, Cal is contacted by Kate Tolmie, desperate to find her sister Flora who left a mysterious note with Cal’s name on it. Twenty-years before Kate and Flora’s mother disappeared off the coast of France when she was due to return to her family via ferry. The disappearance was big news at the time but no clues have ever come to light. Kate also hopes Cal can find out what happened to her mother, and there’s a personal connection too. Flora was Alex’s fiancée.

The story switches to Texel, an island holiday spot in the Netherlands, where the body of a young English girl lost at sea washed up, also twenty-three years ago. Here her old school-mate Sarah has made her home, guilt-ridden for not being a better friend. Of course, only Cal can make the connection. And what’s the connection to the death of a beggar at an Edinburgh train station, stabbed in an adjacent alley. All clues point to Kate Tolmie being the killer but DS Helen Jamieson isn’t so sure.

Helen is the other great thing about these books. She, like Cal, is an awkward character, not getting on with her colleagues because of her need to examine all the facts to ensure the right person is put away. Imagine that! Her IQ is off the chart and she’s got a massive crush on Cal. The two have become friends over several cases, but Cal is a terrible person to be friends with as he disappears for months at a time and doesn’t keep in touch.

Friendship is a recurring theme throughout the book – the awkward friendship between Cal and Helen, Cal’s sporadic memories of time spent with Alex, and their friend Olaf. There’s Sarah and her elegant French neighbour, as well as her memories of lost friend Ruth. Friendship has its obligations which can cause strain as much as it enriches people and we can see that here. Then there are all those secrets. Cal is in for a few surprises about the old pals he lost touch with and it is fortunate that Helen is investigating as she helps connect the dots.

This is a lovely twisty read with some really evocative coastal settings that add a ton of atmosphere. You get enough of the science of oceanography for it to add interest without weighing the story down. Mark Douglas-Home deftly weaves together all the plot threads – and there are a few of them – in a way that keeps you up reading to see what happens. All in all it’s a very satisfying mystery, but I hope we won’t have to wait too long before Cal’s next investigation. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Winter Guest by W C Ryan – a ghostly murder-thriller amid the Irish troubles

The Winter Guest is my second W C Ryan novel, both books featuring ghosts, or at least characters who are able to see them. This isn’t a genre that normally grabs my interest, but Ryan makes the ghosts not too ghoulish, sometimes helpful and doesn’t let them take over the plot.

Tom Harkin is an intelligence officer for the IRA. It’s 1921 and Tom has been asked down to the funeral of former fiancée, Maud Prendeville, who’s been killed in a rebel ambush outside her home. Maud lived at Kilcolgan House, the run-down home of Lord Kilcolgan, her father. The family had not fared well during the WWI, losing Arthur, Maud’s brother. So there’s that.

And then Maud got caught up in the Easter Rising of 1916, siding with the rebels, which is unusual considering her family background, i.e., Anglo-Irish landed gentry and Anglican. After a narrow escape, she’s supposedly lead a quiet life, having sometime before broken off her engagement with Tom who she’d met at university. Gosh, she’s an interesting victim – it’s almost a shame we didn’t get to meet her properly, before the killer got her.

Maud had been at a card party at her uncle’s, Sir John Prendeville, and had unexpectedly decided not to stay the night – it’s dangerous to be out after dark, as violence erupts in so many ways. Not just the rebels, either. She gets a lift with District Inspector James Teevan, who is also dropping home Maud’s guest, family friend, Harry Cartwright. All three are discovered shot dead, but the IRA rebels swear they left Maud concussed, but still alive.

The elderly couple living at the gatehouse heard a shot go off a few minutes after the original shoot-out. So Tom’s been asked to put his intelligence officer hat on while he’s staying with the Prendevilles for the funeral to find out who murdered Maud. His cover as usual is that he’s an insurance assessor, evaluating a future claim on Maud’s estate.

This is a mystery where it doesn’t matter quite so much whodunit, as whose side they’re on and what secrets they’re hiding. As you read you have to get your head around the politics of the time. Since the Rising the British Army have come down hard on rebel activity, bolstering the local police force (The Royal Irish Constabulary, or RIC) with the Black and Tans recruited from ex-British solders, as well as Auxiliaries, a counter-insurgency unit. In charge of the local Auxies is Major Abercrombie, a shoot first, ask questions later sort of guy. Abercrombie was meant to have been in the car when it was ambushed.

And then there are the ghosts. Tom Harkin, still suffering from PTSD from his time in the war, feels a presence helping him avoid soldiers during curfew. He sees ghosts of men he knows are dead. It’s a shock to meet Sean Driscoll from his old regiment. He thought Driscoll had been killed in the same mortar attack that had wiped out many of his fellow soldiers. But somehow Driscoll survived and now he works for the Prendevilles. There’s a Prendeville ghost too, who Maud’s brother spots just before the ambush, seen only when a Prendeville is going to die.

The Winter Guest is more than an atmospheric country-house mystery – although there’s a ton of atmosphere in Kilcolgan House, with its failing masonry and lingering dead. It’s also a terrific snapshot of a time in history and the pressures of martial law, which seems to bring out the worst in many, and the best in a few. On top of that, Ryan rollicks up the tension as Tom Harkin slowly puts together what happened and why, leading to a nail-biting showdown at the end.

Tom unravels layers and motives, going back in time, plus a bunch of secrets that keep the reader guessing. I wouldn’t mind another mystery for Tom Harkin to solve – he’s an interesting and appealing character. But then I really liked Kate Cartwright from A House of Ghosts too. The author has written some historical fiction as William Ryan, but as W C Ryan, ghosts seem to be the connecting theme, rather than a regular sleuth. It’s an original idea and in Ryan’s skilled hands works really well. I’ll definitely be back for more. The Winter Guest is a four star read from me.

Book Review: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase – secrets and lies in an evocative Cornish setting

I love these novels set in old English country houses, specially when family secrets, heartbreak and mystery are added to the mix. Old houses can add a Gothic quality, as it is with Black Rabbit Hall, although that’s not the house’s real name. Pencraw’s a dilapidated mansion on the Cornish coast, subject to storms and heady summer heat and it’s the home to the Alton family when they’re not in London.

The young Altons are a blessed with loving parents – beautiful Nancy who hails from New York, and Hugo who is struggling to maintain the old house, with its leaky roof and unreliable floorboards. The couple are devoted to each other, and adore their kids: little Kitty, nature-loving Barney, fifteen-year-old Toby and his twin sister Amber who narrates most of the story. Their world comes crumbling down when Nancy dies suddenly in a riding accident, and the children become more wild and unkempt.

Amber does her best to fill in as a mother figure to the two younger children while Toby acts more weirdly than ever. He has a fixation with what to do if civilisation comes to an end – it’s 1968 and the Cold War and the nuclear arms race are all go. He’s a survivalist but not in a good way and argues constantly with his father. It doesn’t come as a surprise when Hugo invites an old flame to visit but it’s a shock when she arrives with her seventeen-year-old son, Lucien. Caroline is the opposite of their warm, spontaneous mother, but she’s got money and might just save Black Rabbit Hall.

The story flips between Amber’s narration and Lorna’s some thirty odd years later. Lorna and her fiancé Jon are looking for a wedding venue, and Amber has a distant memory of visiting Black Rabbit Hall as a child with her mother. There is an emotional pull here for Lorna as her mother has recently died, lacing the memory with nostalgia. Finding the house almost defeats them, but it’s also a shock when they get there and it seems the Hall is not quite ready for hosting weddings, despite what the website says.

Jon and Amber look set to fall out over the Hall, Amber still excited about finding the perfect setting for the wedding, Jon more realistic having noticed the general state of disrepair. Then there is the lack of staff, the house inhabited by the frail and elderly Mrs Alton and Dill, her flustered general factotum. Amber is talked into visiting for a weekend to help make up her mind – no pressure! What she experiences when she’s at the Hall is more about disturbing distant memories and uncovering family secrets that giving the place a trial run. What is it about Black Rabbit Hall that seems to prod deep into her consciousness?

The story slowly comes together as we go back through the years to fill in the gaps as the Alton children have to deal with family upheaval while still grieving for Nancy. Lorna also teases out hints from the past which make her doubt her future with Jon. In each narrative there is a gathering storm and sense of impending doom, which has you galloping through the book to find out what happens. It all comes to a startling and intense ending but there is resolution as well.

For me the book had hints of Daphne du Maurier, not only with the Cornish setting, but with the cruel, Mrs Danvers-like malefactor and the Gothic qualities of the house. Chase also does a great job with the family dynamics, particularly the way she writes about siblings and the intense connections between the twins, the pressure on the older sister to keep things together and the difficulty for her to be her own person.

Black Rabbit Hall is the perfect read if you like old country house mysteries and evocative settings. The characters are easy to empathise with, honestly they break your heart, and there is an interesting dichotomy between long summer days where nothing seems to happen and events hurtling characters into rash behaviour. This is my second Eve Chase novel – I’d previously enjoyed The Wilding Sisters – and it didn’t disappoint. I’ll be heading back for more. Black Rabbit Hall (which incidentally won the Saint Maur en Poche prize for best foreign fiction) gets a four out of five from me.