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.
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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