‘“Man is a foul thing, little and poor, a stinking slime, and after that a sackful of dung and, at the last, meat to the worms. In his final hour he lies with a shooting head and rattling lungs and gaping mouth and veins beating, his fingers cooling, his back aching, his breath thinning and death coming. His teeth grin grimly in a bony head, maggots make breakfast of his eyes. Man is weak and fruitless, a clothed cadaver clutching at his worldly things, a skeleton that will one day clack for want of blood and flesh; a festering mound of skin and nail, and after than an unlubricated heap of bone. Is man the master of his life? Does he own the moments that make it up? No, those moments are God’s, to add to or subtract as he wills. Man is a sinner whose life speeds him day by day towards a tomb, not a master of his body but a slave to it; his red lips will turn black and his eyes will fog over and his feet will stiffen and his tongue will slacken and his ears hiss with death.”
Amen, they said, as they trailed up the nave with gifts for the dead.’
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 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.’
‘“We believe that there is some kind of conspiracy, some kind of secret organisation working against the Party, and that you are involved in it. We want to join it and work for it. We are enemies of the Party. We disbelieve in the principles of Ingsoc. We are thought-criminals. We are also adulterers. I tell you this because we want to put ourselves at your mercy. If you want to incriminate ourselves in any other way, we are ready.”’
‘Like a witch’s lair in a fairytale the ancient manor house crouches in its tangled garden. I can’t take my eyes off the ivy-choked window above the front door. It was from that window in 1913 that 16-year-old Maud Stearne watched her father set off down the steps with an ice-pick, a geological hammer – and murder in his heart. We’ve all heard of Edmund Stearne. We’ve marvelled at his works and shuddered at this crime. Why did he do it? Did he confide his secrets to a notebook? Why won’t his daughter reveal the truth? For more than 50 years Maud Stearne has lived the life of a recluse. I’m the first outsider who’s met her and been inside Wake’s End. What I’ve learned blows her father’s case wide open.’