A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan

Review published on October 10, 2018.

It is the winter of 1917: war continues to rage in Europe and people are despairing about the darkness which has led to so much loss; it is little wonder that some seek answers, and comfort, in spiritualism. At reputedly haunted Blackwater Abbey, situated on an island off the coast of Devon, Lord Highmount has arranged a spiritualist gathering to coincide with the winter solstice. He has invited Madame Feda and Count Orlov, both mediums, because he and his wife are desperate to discover what has happened to their two sons, who are “missing, presumed dead”. As the invited guests arrive it becomes clear that each is hiding a secret and soon a ferocious storm will trap them all on the island, with all contact to the mainland cut off. Before long one of them will die, but who is the murderer and what is the motivation?

One of the invited guests is Kate Cartwright, who has known the Highmount family all her life because her parents are close friends of Lord and Lady Highmount. Although most people assume she is a secretary, Kate in fact works as a codebreaker for Naval Intelligence. She first meets Captain Donovan, an officer seconded to a battalion in France but recently ordered to return to London, when they meet in the office of “C”, head of the Secret Intelligence Service. He wants them to join forces on a top-secret mission to Blackwater Abbey to uncover who is passing top-secret documents and plans from Lord Highmount’s munitions factory to the enemy. Although they are to pretend to still be engaged, Kate is to be accompanied by her ex-fiancé, Captain Miller-White, whilst Donovan’s cover is to act as Miller-White’s valet. Kate’s parents are also guests, keen to make contact with their own son, presumed killed in France.

Although this book promises to be “an unrelentingly gripping mystery packed with twists and turns …. the perfect chilling read” I was neither gripped, nor chilled, by the story. I found the writing style rather too naïve, to the extent that I often found myself wondering whether the book was aimed at a young teenage readership. The twists and turns of the developing story were relatively predictable and the ghostly apparitions didn’t convince or engage me as a reader. In addition to being a story about the supernatural, this was also a story about espionage. However, I found that the latter theme was all too frequently diluted by the former and so I ended up feeling frustrated for much of the story because I didn’t feel engaged with the supernatural aspect and would have liked the espionage element to have been more convincingly developed. I thought that the characters were rather one-dimensional, almost stereotypical caricatures. Although the relationship between Kate and Donovan was, at times, engaging and amusing, and the ending certainly paved the way for further adventures for the duo, I felt that I hadn’t been able to get “under the skin” of either character! On a more positive note, I did feel that the author managed to create a convincingly atmospheric sense of being marooned on an island, totally cut off by a raging storm and fearing for your safety in such a hostile environment … and I did love the dramatic cover of the book!

I think that some of the themes in the story, ghosts, spiritualism, faulty equipment being issued to frontline soldiers, resulting in even more needless deaths (plus ça change!) could provide good discussion points for reading groups but, as a personal read, this was a disappointment.

Linda Hepworth 2/3

A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan
Zaffre 9781785766510 hbk Oct 2018

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