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.
There is a fight on the pavement outside. Shouting, swearing, pushing, polo shirts stretched tight over beer guts, the full show. The confrontation is fuelled by alcohol, the participants’ attention on each other rather than the overlooking windows. The fisticuffs, however, are not where your attention should be. Take a step back from the window. What do you see? Frost creeping up in between the double glazing where the seal has blown. The dried husks of a few flies littering the windowsill.
Our previous attempt at climbing Ben Vane in March of this year had to be abandoned after the weather turned on us close to the summit. We were pretty sure that we had made the right decision at the time – the lowering snow clouds chased us down the mountain – but the questions of how close we had come to the top and whether we should have pushed on through the weather had been prodding away at me ever since.
‘The only thing he might have expected to find but hadn’t was a bible. On the other hand, Scardale was so cut off from the rest of the world, they might still be worshipping the corn goddess here. Maybe the missionaries had never made it this far.’
My clients’ time is limited, as for that matter is mine in this role. Putting people to death was never exactly a career path – witness the hoods and cowls my predecessors wore to protect their identity – but public opinion has very much turned against capital punishment. The world war has been over for fifteen years and the public have decided that they’ve had enough slaughter for now. Add the executions of people like Ruth Ellis, pretty blonde cupcake that she was, and the mood around the noose really soured.
The line lands noiselessly between the waves. Arthur hasn’t got long – a great grandfather’s absence at a christening for any length of time is bound to cause concern. He has not gone far – the music is still faintly audible down here on the darkling pier.
Arthur’s fingers never used to hurt when he spun for mackerel. His hands didn’t used to look like this, either – thick-knuckled and eel-veined.
‘…a sentence or a passage is rhythmical if, when said aloud, it falls naturally into groups of words, each well fitted by length and intonation for its place in the whole and its relation to its neighbours. If you’re writing prose, the best guide is to cultivate an instinct for the difference between what sounds right and what sounds wrong, a syllable-by-syllable attention to sound, a feel for rhyme and breath.’
Despite the incontrovertible fact that reading about writing inevitably (in the short term at least) makes one less productive, it is a habit I frequently fall into. Whether it is writing whilst standing up (Hemingway) or scribbling to the smell of rotten apples (Schiller) it is tempting to believe that if we change one or two writing rituals we will find ourselves blessed with inspiration or writing for sixteen hour stretches. So it was that I added ‘How to Write Like Tolstoy’ to a modest collection including Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’ and Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.