Monday, November 5, 2018

Review of A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan (Zaffre, 2018)

Winter, 1917. Lord Highmount, a weapons manufacturer has organized a gathering at Blackwater Abbey, his home on a Devonshire island, to try and make contact with his two sons killed in the trenches. Present are his wife and daughter, two spiritualists, a doctor and his patient who is suffering from shell-shock, his industrialist friend and his wife who have a son missing in action, an officer who works in the Ordnance Dept, and the abbey’s servants. Asked to attend by British intelligence are Captain Donovan, chaser and fixer of spies, and Kate Cartwright, daughter of the guest industrialist and former fiancée to the officer, who works in Naval codes and is also able to see ghosts. They’re job is to try and identify who has been passing on secret military intelligence to the Germans. Not long after the guests arrive a storm closes in cutting the island off and strange and sinister occurrences start to happen leading to murder. Donovan and Kate struggle to make sense of the unfolding events, especially since they seem to be chasing ghosts.

In A House of Ghosts Ryan mashes together elements of a golden age country house crime tale, a ghost story, and an espionage thriller. Using a classic setup, he isolates his characters in a house on an island, using the weather as means to trap them there. The house is an old abbey and is haunted by centuries worth of inhabitants, is riddled with secret passages, and has its upstairs-downstairs politics of servants and owners/guests. Among the guests are two spiritualists, a doctor whose shell-shocked patient can converse with the dead, and a woman who can see ghosts. They are there to conduct a séance and talk to their relatives killed in the trenches. One of the guests is also a German agent and two have been sent to capture the spy. The guests are all friends of the host Lord Highmount and have various interconnections, and the servants have their own agendas and linkages. The two main protagonists are Captain Donovan, an Irishman working for British intelligence, and Kate Cartwright, who is to aid him winkle out the spy. Two likeable characters, they immediately form a bond that extends beyond a working relationship. Ryan uses the set-up to good effect, with skulduggery mixing with ghostly happenings, and friends starting to turn on each other. The result is a story that rattles along, with plenty of intrigue and action. I was expecting it to be a bit more creepy and haunting and the identity of the spy master is no great mystery. However, the other happenings are not quite so clear, keeping the reader guessing about some elements of the tale. I imagine this is opening of a series featuring Donovan and Kate, or at least I’m hoping it is. Overall, an engaging, entertaining tale that harks back to the golden age of crime fiction.

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