Thebest­new crime fic­tion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - DECLAN HUGHES Declan Hughes is a nov­el­ist and play­wright

It’s the most won­der­ful time of the year, when the dark clouds be­tween this world and the next dis­perse and trou­bled souls walk abroad: what bet­ter way to ap­pease the dead than with a first-rate haunted house mys­tery? WC Ryan’s pitch-per­fect A House of

Ghosts (Zaiffre, £12.99) takes place at Black­wa­ter Abbey, Lord High­mount’s coun­try es­tate on an is­land off the Devon Coast. It’s 1917, High­mount has lost two sons on the Western Front and he and his wife have con­vened a spir­i­tu­al­ist gath­er­ing in the hope of con­tact­ing them. For­merly a monastery, the Abbey is a Tu­dor manor house well supplied with sealed rooms, se­cret pas­sages and chan­de­liers dec­o­rated with or­molu dragons and snakes; the wind beats up a storm that ren­ders the seas im­pass­able; and an un­in­vited man on the is­land ap­pears bent on bloody re­venge.

As you might ex­pect from the au­thor of four ac­claimed works of his­tor­i­cal crime fic­tion writ­ten as Wil­liam Ryan, A House of Ghosts is deftly set in an war-weary Eng­land when spir­i­tu­al­ism flour­ished among the be­reaved. There is a charis­matic medium of ex­otic prove­nance and du­bi­ous pow­ers, a raff­ish soldier of un­cer­tain rep­u­ta­tion and a whiff of scandal sur­round­ing morally com­pro­mised arms mag­nate Lord High­mount (hat tips to All My Sons and An In­spec­tor Calls). But what makes the book stand out are its two leads: Dono­van, a bat­tle-scarred Ir­ish­man with­drawn from the front to work for the Se­cret In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice, whose na­tion­al­ity com­pro­mises his loy­al­ties, and his fel­low SIS op­er­a­tive, grey-eyed Kate Cartwright, who not only pos­sesses more than her fair share of wit, spirit and gump­tion; she can see dead peo­ple. “The dead thronged the quay, as they did in ev­ery fish­ing port she’d ever been to. Drowned men.”

A House of Ghosts is an in­tel­li­gent, ab­sorb­ing, exquisitely spooky mys­tery that left this reader hop­ing to see a great more of Cartwright and Dono­van, in what­ever form of fu­ture part­ner­ship they might favour.

Done­gal-set se­ries

Big houses and is­lands and ghosts abound in

Mur­der at Greys­bridge (Con­sta­ble, £13.99), the fourth in An­drea Carter’s highly en­joy­able Done­gal-set se­ries. When so­lic­i­tor Ben O’Keefe ar­rives for her friend Leah’s wed­ding at Greys­bridge Ho­tel, she’s not en­tirely sure she likes the sin­is­ter-look­ing lime­stone villa with east and west wings and a cov­ered foot­bridge pro­trud­ing from the right gable and van­ish­ing into a rhodo­den­dron-clogged an­nex. The house is full of noises, sounds and strange sights. The groom’s peo­ple, islanders from nearby Inishathair, are said to be un­wel­com­ing and clan­nish, al­though when we meet the for­mi­da­ble Aun­tie Belva, their gor­gon queen, she is as mon­strously de­light­ful as any Wode­house aunt, and later proves ca­pa­ble of whip­ping up three pots of stew on a storm-tossed is­land dur­ing a black­out. When two guests un­con­nected to the wed­ding meet their deaths, Ben finds her­self once again at the cen­tre of a mur­der case – and once again paired with her now es­tranged boyfriend, the newly re­turned Sgt Mol­loy. Carter skill­fully blends a tragic fam­ily plot of un­wanted preg­nancy and a dis­in­her­ited daugh­ter with the semi-or­gan­ised crime of diesel-laun­der­ing to make a grip­ping mys­tery; the cli­max of the novel, with Ben and Mol­loy stranded on Inishathair in the storm, is an at­mo­spheric tour de force.

Barred for shoplift­ing

To para­phrase an­other mon­strous aunt, An­thony Horowitz seems to be liv­ing en­tirely for plea­sure now; such is the only con­clu­sion one can draw from The Sen­tence is Death (Cen­tury, ¤16.99), the sec­ond en­try in his De­tec­tive Hawthorne se­ries, where Hawthorne’s Wat­son is An­thony Horowitz him­self. Whether he is fret­ting about his Foyle’s War rewrites, get­ting barred from Daunt’s book­sellers for shoplift­ing (“I’m very sorry, An­thony, I don’t think we’ll be stock­ing you after this.”) or can­celling his hot ticket at the Na­tional Theatre to at­tend a book­club whose mem­bers mis­take him for Eoin Colfer be­fore pro­ceed­ing to ig­nore him, Horowitz the writer is ev­i­dently hav­ing a great deal of fun at the ex­pense of his mimsy, Pooter­ish avatar.

There’s a sim­ple mo­ment early on that en­cap­su­lates the game be­ing played, when Hawthorne is ad­mit­ted to the build­ing where a mur­der has been com­mit­ted. “I smiled vaguely, ner­vous that I would be stopped, but the po­lice­man seemed to be ex­pect­ing me. I went in.”

Of course he was; of course he did: like any good au­thor, his job, peev­ish and re­sent­ful though it makes him, is to fol­low his de­tec­tive around.

Lit­er­ary satire, meta-fic­tional tricks: the only el­e­ment that doesn’t work quite so well here is the mur­der mys­tery – I guessed the cul­prit’s iden­tity pretty much im­me­di­ately, and I did my best not to – but there is more than one mys­te­ri­ous death to clear up, and it is in ex­plor­ing the in­cit­ing sins of the fathers that the dark, em­bit­tered heart of this novel poignantly sur­faces.

No­to­ri­ous book

Sarah Wein­man is the ed­i­tor of a vol­ume of short sto­ries, Trou­bled Daugh­ters, Twisted Wives, and two Li­brary of Amer­ica an­tholo­gies de­voted to women crime writ­ers from the 1940s and 1950s, the so-called trail­blaz­ers of do­mes­tic sus­pense.

The Real Lolita (W&N, £16.99), her first book, is a skil­fully as­sem­bled blend of true crime, lit­er­ary anal­y­sis and cul­tural crit­i­cism ex­plor­ing the as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween the real story of Sally Horner’s ab­duc­tion and the writ­ing of Vladimir Nabokov’s beloved, no­to­ri­ous book.

Weav­ing be­tween the two sto­ries, Wein­man is care­ful not to over­state her case, al­low­ing that Lolita would cer­tainly have ex­isted with­out Sally Horner, but in­sist­ing that the nar­ra­tive was un­doubt­edly strength­ened by the in­clu­sion of her story. Most af­fect­ing per­haps is the ex­tract from Véra Nabokov’s pri­vate di­ary ex­press­ing her dis­may at the pub­lic re­cep­tion of the novel: “I wish some­one would no­tice the ten­der de­scrip­tion of the child’s help­less­ness, her pa­thetic de­pen­dence on the mon­strous HH, and her heartrend­ing courage all along . . .” In restor­ing a real victim to the pic­ture, Wein­man’s book is an elo­quent, com­pas­sion­ate, flu­ent act of notic­ing.

Darkly funny

That other most won­der­ful time of the year is loom­ing, when ev­ery day feels like one long meal; brac­ing then to have a book short enough to fin­ish be­tween cour­ses, so to speak. Mick Her­ron’s The Drop (John Mur­ray, £9.99) is a darkly funny, beau­ti­fully writ­ten Slough House novella to tide us over un­til the real thing comes along; Stephen King’s El­e­va­tion (Hod­der & Stoughton, £14.99) is by Frank Capra out of Ray Brad­bury, a magical small-town story of un­ac­count­able weight loss, prej­u­dice, long-dis­tance run­ning, un­der­stand­ing, veg­e­tar­ian Mex­i­can food and as­cen­sion into heaven.

From top: An­thony Horowitz, An­drea Carter, Mick Her­ron and Sarah Wein­man

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