The Winter Guest

Written by W. C. Ryan
Review by Trish MacEnulty

Even before a mystery is established in his most recent novel, W. C. Ryan creates a suspenseful mood with the description of a grand old house that is falling apart. The setting is Northern Ireland shortly after World War I, when Irish soldiers returned home to find another war waiting for them. The “Auxies,” a branch of former British officers, now at loose ends, have been set upon the country, keeping a brutal rein on the rebels. This war is on a different scale, but “the killing is the same.”

A former British officer and current IRA member, Tom Harkin sets out from Dublin to investigate the killing of his former fiancée, Maud Prendeville, during an IRA ambush. He has no idea whom to trust but learns early on to be wary of the leader of the Auxies, who is sure to be suspicious of an Irish Catholic. As Harkin pokes around, he agitates both sides of the conflict, and bodies soon pile up, intensifying the trauma of his wartime experiences. Fortunately, he has allies—Bourke, who looks like a prize fighter with “hands like shovels,” and Moira, a monocle-wearing woman he knew at university, who hopes to rekindle an old flame.

While The Winter Guest is a first-rate historical murder mystery, it’s also a ghost story with characters who are haunted by a past that has been erased by war. Additionally, a lyrical sensibility informs the writing so that the book’s imagery lingers long after the last page. Sensory details, such as a mist that “clings to his face and clothes in a cold, damp sheen” and a foghorn that sounds “muffled and lonely” help make this an immersive read and confirm the place of Irish writers at the pinnacle of evocative literature.