The Winter Guest by W.C. Ryan is published with Zaffre Books and is described as ‘a gripping and atmospheric murder mystery with a classic feel’. I thoroughly enjoyed A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan, so I was thrilled when the opportunity came my way to read a copy of The Winter Guest.
Ireland has quite a tumultuous history spanning generations. We all have stories to tell passed on from grandparents and great-grandparents of a very different country, of a time when unrest stretched from North to South. Irish men and women joined the British army during The Great War in a bid to help fight against tyranny and to help protect other nations in their fight for their independence. Many of these Irish soldiers, on their return, expected that Ireland would achieve Home Rule and, in time, become an independent country, finally free to make its own decisions. But as we know this was not to be. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 brought about the Irish Civil War, one that left its scar on the generations that followed. Ireland had already been through great upheaval in 1916 during The Easter Rising, followed by The War of Independence which raged through the land from 1919 to 1921. There was a bitterness in many homes throughout the country and nobody escaped its wrath.
The Anglo-Irish community had their homes burned from under them by the IRA in a bid to remove ‘the foreigners’ and return the land to the Irish who were tenants on their own soil. Poverty was rife within the cities but was very much more evident in the rural communities.
W.C. Ryan vividly recreates this period taking the reader to the coastal residence of the Prendeville family, Kilcolgan House, following an IRA ambush. Late one evening a motor car carrying a number of people, including Maud Prendeville, is attacked near Kilcolgan House, leaving all dead at the scene. Maud Prendeville was a known supporter and activist during the 1916 Rising, immediately raising questions as to why the IRA would agree to her brutal murder. The local faction who committed the attack claim that when they left the scene Maud Prendeville was unconscious but breathing. It was a single gunshot, heard a short time following the ambush, that rang the death knell for Maud Prendeville, but why? With the IRA in denial of any wrongdoing relating to her death, Dublin sends Captain Tom Harkin to uncover the truth. Tom Harkin is an intelligence officer for the IRA, working under the guise of an insurance assessor. He knows the Prendeville family having been in a relationship with Maud in a previous life. Tom Harkin fought in the trenches of the First World War with Maud’s brother and Tom suffered terribly from his experiences, with flashbacks and ghostly sightings of his comrades regularly invading his days. He sees their death stares, he smells their rotting flesh and he carries the constant guilt of a survivor. Tom Harkin is a man clearly traumatised by his experiences but, for Maud, he is determined to get to the bottom of her murder.
In 1921 the RIC and the Auxiliary forces were unforgiving of the guerrilla tactics employed by the IRA. Spies infiltrated all sides and Tom Harkin is soon entrenched in a cat and mouse game of survival. Trust was a very important tool but who to give it to was a dangerous act easily resulting in torture and death if the wrong ear overheard a conversation. Tom Harkin is unsettled as he takes in the decay of Kilcolgan House, a house very much in decline from when he had been there in previous happier times. There is an air of unease, a threatening atmosphere that is heightened by his visions of the dead. Are these apparitions just the imagination of an overwrought person or is there something of the supernatural afoot?
Tom Harkin is determined in his quest for the truth behind Maud’s death. He crosses paths with some very unpleasant characters and his search takes him on an unexpected and dangerous journey. The descriptions of the crumbling walls and shadows of Kilcolgan House are sharply depicted giving the reader a true sense of life for the Anglo-Irish during these senseless and sorrowful times.
The Winter Guest screams nostalgia, a novel that could have been written decades ago. W.C. Ryan captures a period of Irish history with a very sympathetic hand, interweaving the fractured nature of a damaged society around a mysterious and complex murder investigation. With its haunting setting amidst a secretive landscape, The Winter Guest is a highly enjoyable whodunnit with a first-rate cast of characters that will intrigue, shock and captivate every reader.
(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)
Order your copy online here.