1921, assassination, betrayal, book review, Britain, Civil War, full-fledged villains, historical fiction, IRA, Ireland, literary fiction, mystery, no and furthermore, politics, superb characterizations, thriller, W. C. Ryan
Review: The Winter Guest, by W. C. Ryan
Arcade, 2022. 321 pp. $27
A dangerous, painful task brings Tom Harkin from Dublin to Kilcogan House, a now-crumbling country manse, in winter 1921. An IRA ambush has attacked a car near the house, killing a high-ranking British officer; an innocent bystander along for the ride; and Maud Prendeville, eldest daughter of the house, who wasn’t meant to be traveling that night.
However, the IRA insists that the volley that riddled the car didn’t kill Maud—minutes later, witnesses say, they heard a single shot, presumably from a different hand. The distinction matters politically, because Maud was a heroine of the ill-fated Easter Rebellion of 1916, and such honors are not forgotten. If the IRA were responsible for her death, the crime would embarrass them and provide propaganda for the British forces attempting to suppress Irish nationalism.
As an IRA intelligence officer, Tom’s well placed to understand the considerations implicitly and knows what few other do—that Maud, among others, was trying to arrange an arms purchase for the IRA in the United States. What’s more, she was Tom’s erstwhile fiancée, back when they were university students before the Great War. While he was an officer in the Dublin Fusiliers serving in France, she broke off their engagement, by mail. Consequently, he has more than one reason to investigate, and her death feels deeply personal.
But in this civil war between Irish nationalists and those who oppose independence from Britain, neither side shows quarter or much regret for innocents caught in the crossfire. For the most part, Tom can count on people not to care to know about his connection to the IRA, and to keep their suspicions to themselves, if they have any.
That’s for the most part. A betrayal from any source will see him tortured and killed, and he can never rule out the possibility that one or more of his acquaintances are playing a double game. Nobody, no matter what their loyalties, believes his cover story that he’s working for an insurance company that holds a policy on Maud, even though he has papers to show.
Not surprisingly, more than one person warns him that no good can come of his investigation, only more murders, yet Tom persists, an old trope. But in a twist, he suffers what would today be called PTSD, as ordinary sensory perceptions remind him of his wartime trauma and of Maud, the latter appearing as a ghost or in troubled dreams. I’m not much for gothic, but the PTSD makes perfect sense, and Ryan conveys the tactile First World War experience as well as any writer I’ve read.
This brilliant, gripping mystery/thriller (the novel has elements of both) offers many pleasures, including atmosphere:
If anything, the fog becomes thicker as they make their way slowly through the town—the horse’s hooves sounding like a muffled echo of themselves. The few shops and pubs glow like islands in the mist, while somewhere a church bell rings, its mournful sound seeming to come from behind them one moment, and from up ahead the next. A donkey cart loaded down with milk churns looms towards them from the other side of the street. The flat-capped farmer holding the traces looks in their direction with such a blank expression that Harkin is not even sure that he has seen them.
As with the sterling prose, the characterizations are spot-on. Ryan takes pains with every figure on stage for more than a minute, including the villains, which I always like to see. The bad guys are truly bad, but they believe in what they’re doing. As for the majority, who fall in neither the nationalist nor pro-British camp (at least not obviously), they each have particularities and, often, something to hide that one side or other will object to, if not both.
The storytelling feels entirely sure-handed. Early on, Tom corroborates the single-shot theory, but that’s less helpful than it might be, not least because he has to discover who could have known Maud was riding in the car. Several suspects emerge, but as soon as he settles on them as possibilities, facts turn up that challenge his assumptions. Such “no—and furthermore” is constant in The Winter Guest, and Tom, though an observant detective, makes mistakes through false assumptions.
Meanwhile, the ever-present chance that he’ll be unmasked as IRA ratchets up the tension. Much of his investigation hinges on delicate diplomacy, as he decides how much to reveal, and to whom, to obtain the information he seeks. He also has to cut deals with people who might suspect who he is, but, for their own reasons, wish to see justice done for Maud.
I would have liked a hint as to why Maud broke off her engagement to Tom, and for him to struggle more with that rejection, particularly the way she handled it. I also find the obligatory confrontation between Tom and the bad guys not entirely credible, with a hint of melodrama. But those are small complaints about an exceptional novel.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.