A House of Ghosts | Book Review

A House of Ghosts

W. C. Ryan




Blackwater Island, off the Devon coast, is the storm-lashed setting for W.C. Ryan’s World War One murder mystery. It is the home of Lord and Lady Highmount, whose sons have been killed in the trenches. They arrange a séance in an attempt to contact their sons, to which the mediums Madame Fader and Count Orlov are invited, along with codebreaker Kate Cartwright and the mysterious Donovan. Kate and Donovan are agents under the watchful supervision of British intelligence, sent to investigate the rather less unworldly theft of military intelligence by the Germans. Kate carries with her a secret – she sees the spirits of the dead as they wander the earth. These apparitions are well-crafted side characters and Ryan manages to write ghosts in an unexpected and interesting fashion.

The sense of place is admittedly wonderful. A wave-battered island off the Devon coast, a Victorian Manor, and tunnels spidering through the ground all make for a compelling setting. Add these to the gloom perpetuated by one of the darkest years of the war and the reader is immediately set up for a gloomy, candlelit murder mystery. Ryan does a fantastic job of preparing his reader for a fireside tale of murder and betrayal, but strangely enough this is where the novel becomes problematic.

The setting and the plot were both fine. The story was well-paced, the dialogue rang true, but I was never more than three-quarters engaged with the book. It felt like a colour-by-numbers ghost story, with secret passages, lighthouses, and even a gnarled old boatman who senses a storm coming. Most irritating was the developing romance between Kate Cartwright and Donovan. Of course they were initially antagonistic towards each other. Of course they were kept at arms’ length by puritanical early twentieth century custom. Of course they develop a grudging admiration. Of course Kate begins to get irritated at herself for beginning to fall for Donovan’s rough charm. It is all very romance-by-rote and is signalled at such an early stage of the book that it feels slightly like a chore to work one’s way through it.

Similar issues present themselves with characters such as Rolleson Miller-White, the cowardly upper-class officer, and Private Simms, the shell-shocked soldier returned from the front. I was looking for Ryan to do develop them in ways that confounded my expectations, but such development never quite happens. There are exceptions – Francis Highmount, the self-made aristocrat from low stock is an intriguing creation – but there are too many who fail to evolve past characters in a game of Cluedo.

Perhaps I am being a bit unfair on the book. It did entertain me as I listened to it whilst commuting, and the conclusion and final villain wasn’t altogether expected. I wasn’t sorry to have purchased it on audio rather than in paperback however. I won’t be listening to it again and it would have spent a couple of years on my bookshelf before being carted off to the charity shop.

*Thanks for reading, folks. Find my other reviews below*

Val McDermid – A Place of Execution

Richard Cohen – How to Write Like Tolstoy

George Orwell – 1984

John Sampson – The Wind on the Heath

Michelle Paver – Wakenhyrst

Jess Smith – Way of the Wanderers

Zadie Smith – Feel Free

Max Hastings – Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975

Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes

Ernest Hemingway – In Our Time

Andrew Roberts – Napoleon the Great

Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

Kamila Shamsi – Home Fire

Annie Proulx – Brokeback Mountain

Anthony Doerr – All the Light We Cannot See

Ellipsis: Three magazine

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13

Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

Amor Towles – A Gentleman in Moscow

Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.

Not necessarily in that order

20 thoughts on “A House of Ghosts | Book Review

  1. Interesting review, Matthew. As I started reading it I thought, this book’s one for me, but then as I read on, I saw that maybe not. It’s always a disappointment when a novel in which you’ve been engaged fails to live up to its promise.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I echo the previous comment. I started off thinking, great, this sounds like a wonderful book to get lost in, but your review underlines something I’ve been noticing more in recent years, ( after 55 years of book read)- I feel I’ve read the same book already. More than once. It’s disappointing when I realize this after the anticipation of a fresh adventure! Thank you for your review.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Claudia you’ve hit the nail on the head. It really was like a mosaic of similar books, with nothing of note to distinguish it. Perfectly well put together, but not in the least bit surprising!


  3. maybe it is hard to write an original ghost story, so much have they, if you’ll excuse the pun, been done to death 🙂 one of my favourites still is Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Ball Room’ in collaboration with China Meiville

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this style of review… truthful and to the point, thorough… loved your critique of the romance part, that would drive me mad for sure. Awesome work. Always love to read you.

    Liked by 1 person

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