William Ryan

A House of Ghosts – W. C. Ryan

Title – A House of Ghosts

Author – W. C. Ryan

Published – 4 October 2018

Genre – Historical thriller / supernatural

This is not just an excellent read but is a beautiful book to own. I read the netgalley which means that my hardback copy, with its gold embossed cover, map and illustrated chapter headings, can stay in pristine condition!

The starting premise of the book is terrific. It’s the winter of 1917 and on a tiny island off the Devon coast, Lord Highmount has arranged a spiritualist gathering in an attempt to contact his two sons who have already been lost in the war. He has a very specific guest list and this attracts the attention of military intelligence who ensure that included in the invitations are a number of people in their employ. As the guests gather a storm descends on the island, cutting off the route back to the mainland.

So we have a house party on an island, a raging storm, spies, ghosts, and guests with secrets. Excellent! The setting is Agatha Christie-esque but deals with much more serious issues than she would have tackled in her books. Some of the guests have profited from the war and commercial decisions aren’t always the same as ethical ones, people’s actions have had unpleasant consequences.

I’m not sure if there has been an increase in the books which have a ghostly or supernatural slant to them or I just happen to have read more recently but what sets this book apart is its unambiguous approach to spirits, an approach I really liked, although this does mean they don’t necessarily add to the suspense with the story.

There is a strong cast of characters and everyone adds something to the story. The main characters are Kate Cartwright, a bright, young woman with her own connection to the Highmount family, and Irishman Captain Robert Donovan, a veteran of the war and with plenty in his own past that he would prefer no-one knew about. There is a hint of chemistry between them but the relationship that unfolds is very within keeping for the period setting. One common trait in Ryan’s writings is the ‘reserved hero’, in the Korolev series and The Constant Soldier this is more due to the necessity of the situation but while that is to some extent true in this book it also reflects the etiquette of the time.

The book is neatly plotted with many layers and although the elements may make it sound like it’s all about the action there are some serious themes at the heart of it, including the treatment of those who have served at the front and returned. The writing had a very visual quality and by the end I felt as if I might have seen a film rather than read a book, my recall of the scenes being very vivid. An excellent read for dark winter nights.

Many thanks to the publisher for the netgalley.


The Constant Soldier – William Ryan

416hB6-rgfLTitle – The Constant Soldier

Author – William Ryan

Published – 25 August 2016

Genre – Historical

This a departure from William Ryan’s Stalinist Russia set police procedural series but it shares Ryan’s polished prose and evocative depiction of historical fiction.

The story is set in the last months of the Second World War and German soldier Paul Brandt has been sent back home from the Eastern Front after being seriously injured in a Soviet attack. On returning to his village he finds that the SS have built a rest hut on the outskirts of his village, a luxurious a retreat for those who manage the nearby concentration camp or need to convalesce before returning to the front.

Drawn by a glimpse of someone he thinks is familiar, Brandt takes on the role of Steward at the hut, offering him a brief insight into the lives of the men who make use of the hut or are stationed there. This is a great opportunity to see a whole range of perspectives – from the Commandant who is haunted by the past, the vindictive Scharführer guarding the women prisoners, to the visitors from the camp and of course, the women prisoners themselves.

The main plot is driven by Brandt’s efforts to make amends for a wrong he believes he did and all that he does is to that end. Brandt is wary of sharing his own trepidation and doubts but occasionally he is drawn out to say more than he should, adding an extra layer of tension to the plot. The story has quite a slow pace but this is balanced with action scenes which come from a young Russian woman who is driving a tank which is heading towards Germany. Brandt’s return home also shows the impact that the war has had on his village and the family he left behind, and how his father and sister have fared while has been away. Divisions have opened up and whilst some people have had to go into hiding others are still pursuing victory and are keen to uphold the defence of the Reich to the last.

Ryan effortlessly creates the mood and atmosphere of the last days of the war and makes the book completely absorbing. I’m not sure that I’ve read a book that’s taken this perspective on the war, disillusioned characters who have an inkling of what their future may hold.  It made me pause to consider the people in this situation, forced along with the atrocities they knew were taking place with little chance of making any difference. How did people react when the conclusion of the war (not just this war but any war) became inevitable and they were going to be on the losing side, complicit in what had taken place? It speaks volumes for a novel when it makes you consider the reality of the situation it depicts.

As a departure from the Korolev series this may find Ryan a whole new swathe of fans – if you enjoy books like Atonement and Birdsong this will be right up your street. Beautifully written, thought-provoking and emotionally compelling, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Many  thanks to the publisher for the review copy.


The Bloody Meadow – William Ryan

The Bloody MeadowTitle – The Bloody Meadow

Author – William Ryan

Published – 2011

Genre – Crime fiction

People talk about the ‘difficult second album’ and since I’ve been blogging I’ve noticed that there is also the ‘difficult second novel’ where after years of crafting the first, a second has to be produced in short order. This is a problem that William Ryan certainly doesn’t seem to suffer from, The Bloody Meadow is as well written and carefully plotted as its predecessor The Holy Thief.

Set in 1937, not long after the events in The Holy Thief, Captain  Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev has been waiting for some fallout from this earlier case and anticipates his imminent arrest. When the knock at his door finally comes, however, it’s the first step in another investigation which will again force his involvement in matters that he would rather steer clear of. The case is the death of a young woman in Odessa who was working as a film production assistant on ‘The Bloody Meadow’ and Korolev is hopeful that he can determine that the cause was suicide and he can swiftly return home. Needless to say life doesn’t seem to go smoothly for Korolev and he becomes involved in a  murder investigation where he has to tread carefully.

Despite the investigation taking place in Odessa a couple of characters from the first book reappear – most notably the writer Babel who is involved in the film production but also one of the less savoury ones. The setting also removes Korolev from his colleagues and he has to seek support from the local CID – including a young female detective whose presence helps to lighten the mood.

The political situation is what sets this series apart. Korolov is an appealing and engaging character that the reader roots for and he’s put in tremendously difficult situations. That’s not so different from the premise used in any number of police or detective stories, but in Korolov’s world the situation is constantly shifting. The military hero of today could disappear tomorrow. Korolov doesn’t choose his allegiances, they are forced on him and he has to balance his sense of right and wrong with a pragmatic approach regarding his own well-being. The investigation touches on some of Russia’s relatively recent history and this contributes to some of the numerous strands to the plot. The period also means that there is little room for forensics and DNA, just good old-fashioned detective skills. As with The Holy Thief there is lots of fascinating historical detail, but never any overly long explanatory passages, the research never gets in the way of the pace of the story.

There are some references made about Korolev’s past and I would be interested to find out more about the experiences that have shaped him.

If you were to pick this book up without reading its predecessor I’m sure that it would make complete sense, but starting at the beginning would be more rewarding! You can see another point of view at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.


The Holy Thief – William Ryan

Title – The Holy Thief

Author – William Ryan

Published – 2010

Genre – Crime fiction

Despite the setting being Russia rather than Iceland, this forms part of my reading in advance of Iceland Noir. William Ryan will be appearing during the festival on the “A Sense of Time and Place – now and then” panel with his Russian hat on (although perhaps not literally!).

This was Ryan’s debut and is the first in the series featuring Captain  Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev. Set in 1936 this is a glimpse of Stalinist Russia from the inside. The book opens with the brutal murder of a young woman in a deconsecrated church, her body left on the altar. Korolev is assigned to the case but quickly suspects that it may be a poisoned chalice. Not only could the victim be an American but the case has attracted the interest of Colonel Gregorin of the NKVD – added pressure for Korolev who believes that it should be the State Security who pursue the investigation.

I have to confess that this period of Russian history is one that I know next to nothing about so this was my introduction to an extremely harsh world. Ryan is obviously incredibly knowledgeable about the period but fortunately he credits the reader with some common sense, ensuring the pace of the story isn’t derailed by explanatory passages. Nevertheless, I learnt a lot about things as varied as the construction of the Moscow metro, Soviet football, criminal tattoos and the Russian underworld.

Korolev is a very engaging character, a veteran soldier he is trying to be supportive of the new Russia but can’t completely leave behind his Christian upbringing. He seems to have a more realistic view of the efforts of Stalin and the Five Year Plan than is perhaps good for him and there is a pervading sense of tension as the wrong word can have dire consequences.

The historical period, location and subject all conspire to make this quite a grim read but Ryan manages to imbue Korolev with a wry view of the world that manages lighten things with a little humour.

You can see another review of this title at Killing Time.

At least I feel safe in assuming that while Iceland could be as chilly as 1930’s Russia, Reykjavik should prove to be a lot more hospitable!