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 fiancĂ©e, 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: The Famished Heart by Nicola White – an unusual crime story set in 1980s Dublin

I picked up The Famished Heart, initially thinking it would be a bit like Dervla McTiernan’s brilliant crime series featuring Cormac Reilly. They both have lead police officers who don’t fit in with their colleagues and a boss who probably doesn’t like them either. You get a good deal of police station politics in both. But this book is more of a slow-burner that reminded me of some of Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels (now there’s a blast from the past!) with its focus on a small community and psychological drama.

We’ve got three main narrative points of view. Father Timoney is the unlucky priest called to visit two middle-aged sisters in his parish who haven’t been seen in weeks. What he finds would shock even the most seasoned of clerics: the Macnamara sisters have apparently starved to death, possibly willingly for religious reasons. Timoney has his own problems too. He’s only been in his parish a few months, has a dwindling congregation, an unheated church that is an architectural monstrosity, and a spiteful housekeeper. Throw in back pain and a lack of confidence and he’s really struggling.

Frances Macnamara is the sister that got away. She’s a glamorous actress who, now in her forties, is finding it hard to get well-paid roles, leaving her strapped for cash. She’s in New York when she receives the news of her sisters’ deaths. Flying home she teams up with a niece who was supposed to look in on her aunts, but there’d been a falling out with the older sister and she’s living in a grungy flat. So there’s nowhere for Frances to stay but in the house where it all happened. They soon get the keys because the police don’t think the deaths suspicious.

Well, Detective Inspector Vincent Swan thinks they’re suspicious; someone’s wiped any fingerprints from the door handles and made a crude arrangement of some ornamental animals. But Swan’s being stood down while there’s an investigation into police brutality. He’s not a violent man, unlike the two officers also under investigation, the kind of officers he really doesn’t get along with. Just as well Detective Garda Gina Considine is on the job. She’s the only female officer on the team and suffers sexism on a daily basis – this is Dublin in the ’80s, after all. But she’s smart and a good pairing for sensitive and thoughtful Swan.

Just when you think this story is all about religious mania – and to some extent it is – another death leads our two detectives in another direction and the plot really heats up. You finish the book thinking this is a satisfying mystery, but you’ve also come to know the characters really well. White writes about relationships superbly – throwing people together and seeing how they spark off each other and then come to new realisations. This makes you want to check in with Vincent Swan another time, so it’s good news that this is the start of a series. The second book is an earlier novel and book number three is out next year. A Famished Heart scores a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Guest List by Lucy Foley

This book has been a Reese’s Book Club pick and voted a winner in its genre on GoodReads for books published in 2020. So naturally I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. The Guest List is a book you want to pick up for a number of reasons. It’s set on an island – this one’s a wild sort of place off the coast of Ireland with an old graveyard, ruins and a folly. For some reason Aoife and Freddie have thrown all their money into turning it into a high-end wedding venue.

Think about it. Guests are ferried out by boat. Special guests – the wedding party, groomsmen and bridesmaids mostly arrive the night before. The Folley offers several luxurious bedroom suites. There’s plenty of champagne and Freddie’s an amazing chef; the views are spectacular and the ruined chapel so romantic – if you like that Byronic sort of thing.

Then there’s the Agatha Christie feel about the story. It’s hard not to see a reference to the Queen of Crime’s And Then There Were None. As we all know, when you’re on an island, all you need’s bit of bad weather and you could be stuck there. Add something like a murder and things will get tense.

But this story’s a bit different. First of all there’s no sleuth. Not only is there no sleuth, but even though there’s blood and a hysterical waitress screaming, we don’t find out until the end who the victim is. It’s like all the work has to be done by the reader. Which keeps you really engaged as the story flips between ‘Now’, i.e., the hours following the discovery of the blood, and what happened before the wedding.

The story also flips between narrators. We’ve got the bride, Jules, who while being a smart owner of an online magazine, wealthy in her own right, and about to marry hunky TV reality star Will, is really uptight. She’s got baggage and a temper. There’s Olivia, her sister and bridesmaid, much younger and fragile. She’s got a secret and it’s eating away at her. Can Hannah prise it out of her? Hannah, the Plus-One, is the wife of Charlie who is Jules’s best friend.

Hannah feels insignificant in Jules’s presence, a stay-at-home mother of two who can’t afford designer labels. Plus she can’t help wondering if her husband and Jules have ever been lovers. Add the fact that something happened on the stag do that Charlie won’t talk about and she’s dealing with a lot of stuff. We’ve got wild-boy Johnno, the best man and supposedly Will’s best friend. There’s some kind of hold they have on each other from their time at their Dotheboys Hall type boarding school. So, yes, there are a heap of secrets. We soon get the feeling Aoife has secrets too.

The reader gathers whatever clues are to hand, then as the plot twists and turns appear, you rethink, cross that motive off the list and try again. It gets you racing towards the end, and while I did manage to guess ‘whodunit’ as part of a possible scenario, there were still enough surprises to keep me happy. I can certainly see why this book has been so popular. Is it worth all the fuss? Mmm – perhaps not for me. It’s not a book I would read twice, as its main interest lies in the trick of its construction. It’s a good trick but the characters aren’t particularly good company – far too anguished and self-absorbed. The lack of a sleuth meant I wasn’t as drawn in as I might have been. I’m giving this one a solid three out of five.

Review: A Keeper by Graham Norton

a keeperI’ve had numerous recommendations to read A Keeper, the much talked about second novel by Graham Norton. And the premise of the story is interesting enough to make you want to pick it up too. Elizabeth is a divorced academic living in her New York apartment with a teenage son when her mother dies suddenly in Ireland. Elizabeth must fly back to where she grew up, not very happily, to sort out her mother’s estate.

In the old family house that is now hers, Elizabeth finds a bundle of love letters written by the father she never knew. A surprise inheritance sends her to a remote farmhouse by a ruined castle – was this where Elizabeth was born? The story switches between Elizabeth’s search for clues and her mother Patricia’s story. Continue reading “Review: A Keeper by Graham Norton”