I was engrossed by this historical novel set in Ireland in 1921 among The Troubles that exploded in 1919 in the Irish War of Independence after the First World War.
The Winter Guest by W.C. Ryan brings our investigator and first person narrator Tom Harkin to the atmospheric, crumbling and haunted ancestral mansion of the Prendeville family, close beside the sea, to unravel the mystery behind the murder of his former fiancée, Maud Prendeville.
Some reviewers have noted its ‘moody, gothic atmosphere’ and its ‘bracing whiff of the supernatural.’ Several years ago I attended a talk by a top literary agent and he remarked that setting and topics go in and out of fashion in the publishing world, especially those connected to political events; and at that time, he said any novel set against the Irish troubles would be rejected, because ‘everyone’s fed up with the Irish troubles right now and they don’t want to read fiction about it’.
Interestingly, here in 2023, the Irish troubles are an OK setting again, especially as the events this novel describes are set over a hundred years ago. And certainly this author opened up for me all the passionate convictions of the IRA Column and Volunteers, in their struggle against Britain, represented by the Royal Irish Constabulary and the ‘Auxies’ as they were called (Auxiliaries).
For a contemporary reader, or at least, for me, I spent the first part of the novel confused about who was on whose side and who was against Britain and who was fighting for independence, and who would be highly motivated to kill or to defend who. This was a lot to do with the labels they gave themselves. Some of the characters were double agents, and were pretending to side with those in authority, when really their hearts and souls were with the cause of independence.
Once I’d sorted all that out in my mind, I was able to fully engage with this story of Tom Harkin, just back from the traumatic conflict of the First World War, ostensibly an insurance assessor but really an IRA Intelligence Officer. Tom has travelled from Dublin to the gloomy coastal Kolcolgan House to investigate the murder of his former fiancée, the lovely Maud Prendeville, in an IRA ambush. Initially I found the whole thing as confusing as the fictional characters. Why was Maud, who had shown herself a fighter for independence, been gunned down by her own side?
If Tom had not persisted in his investigations, Maud’ death would have remained an unresolved mystery, just another accidental killing or example of collateral damage. But Tom is untiring in his quest for the truth among the aristocratic Prendeville family and all their ghosts and living associates, and he uncovers a network of complicated and nefarious underhand activity, implicating Maud’s closest Prendeville relatives, who hold a high status in society and have strong connections with the powers that be. The story gathers in intensity and intrigue, and I became swept up in the progression of events, the rising tension, and the multiple shocks that accompany Tom’s discoveries.
In the end this proved to be an absorbing and compelling novel, thought-provoking in its subject matter and ingenious in its plotting.
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