A cold night. You, curled by the fire, glass or mug of something warming by your side and in need of a good read to match the atmosphere as winds howl around your house. May I recommend The Winter Guest by WC Ryan?
Funnily enough, it wasn’t that long ago that I was ranting about how so many Irish books seem very similar these days so it was a relief to come across this ghostly historical crime story.
The Winter Guest is set in southern Ireland just after the First World War, and the onset of the Troubles. The opening sequence focuses on the main crime, the ambush of a car with the passengers shot by a hidden column of men. But there is an additional passenger in the car – Maud Prendeville – daughter of the aristocratic family and she too is killed, later than the other victims, by a single gunshot to the head. The witnesses and the reader hear separate footsteps for her killer.
Investigating, ostensibly for an insurance company but also because he is a rebel sympathiser, is Captain Tom Harkin, one of Maud’s former lovers who served in the army with Maud’s brother. He walks into this tiny community and finds it seething with tensions between the rebels and the ‘Auxies’, the Black and Tans. Can he solve the crime and still survive – both sides carry out retribution on the other.
I mentioned ghosts. The story mentions the White Lady, a ghostly figure who is rumoured to appear just before a member of the Prendeville family dies and appeared to Maud’s brother before her killing. But all the characters appear to be haunted in some way: Tom Harkin faces several spectres in his dreams and in his imagination while in the Kilcolgan house, and many others are mourning losses through war or the Troubles. Plus, the landscape appears to be suffering loss, the men who worked it are dead from fighting, and there are only the widows and mothers left.
The characters are lightly but effectively sketched and there is a grim humour to some of the exchanges between the former soldiers that draws you to their suffering. While it is a male dominated book, the female characters are well portrayed too with actual opinions, desires and parts to play.
I’ve not read Ryan before but will make a point of seeking him out in future. This is a great place to start if you haven’t either.
The Winter Guest is published on 6 January 2022.