[1917 Kate is getting dressed for dinner at a grand house, helped by the maid Molly]
Molly had gone straight to the wardrobe and removed a dark yellow dress that, now that Kate looked at it, was completely impractical for a winter weekend. There was another there too, however – a dark red one that she was fond of. It would be warmer. ‘I think the red dress would be better.’
‘Oh, miss.’ Molly’s disappointment was not hard to detect. ‘Wear the yellow one, please. It is the prettiest dress I think I’ve ever seen. And the cut is splendid, if you don’t mind my saying. Try it on at least.’
Kate was sceptical. She wasn’t certain yellow was even her colour and, most importantly, the dress was rather frivolous. She couldn’t help but imagine that Donovan would disapprove. This decided her. The day she dressed according to what Mr Donovan approved of would be a long while coming. ‘Why not?’ she said, and was pleased with herself. Mr Donovan’s thoughts were a matter of the purest irrelevance to her. As it should be. And as it turned out, Molly had been quite correct – the dress did look well on her.
‘It emphasises your figure, miss. And you have a lovely figure.’
‘Thank you, Molly.’
commentary: I do like a scene of getting ready for dinner. All very Downton Abbey. Clothes don’t play a huge part in this book, and that’s really my only criticism – a few more scenes like this one would’ve been nice, though there is also a purple silk dress with a long row of buttons down the back – lovely, Kate thinks, but not very practical. (That’s where the maid comes in.)
There is a lot going on in the plot, and in the house of the title. It is – as perhaps more common in books than real life – situated on an island off the coast of Devon, easily cut off by bad weather. Sounds familiar? Ryan is definitely tipping his hat to Agatha Christie’s And then There Were None. (Hunger Games for the 1930s is how I thought of it in this post.) But there is also a supernatural element here – ghosts all over the place – and the timing of 1917 is important. Memories of the trenches and worries about patriotism are all relevant, and the sad loss of the war dead is a serious component.
It’s hard to say whether it is a thriller, an adventure story, a spy tale or a murder story: and to say too much would be to spoiler. It is a rattling good read, very enjoyable, with some nice characters alternating their viewpoints. The séance early on is a sinister setpiece, with a very creepy atmosphere.
The furniture had been removed and replaced with a large circular table around which had been placed twelve chairs. The light offered by the solitary candle, which had been set in the middle of the table, was weak but it was enough to make out shadowed faces and the pale hands on the table that touched, little finger to little finger, to form a circle. Every fibre of Kate’s being wished to be elsewhere. Not least because, gathered around the walls, watching them, was a wider circle of spirits….There is always a danger of going into parody territory –
Information suggests the whole house is riddled with passages and secret doors...
Donovan crossed to the wall and placed his hands on two of the rosettes, twisting them, the panelled wall opening to reveal a doorway on to a stone circular staircase. Kate couldn’t help but be impressed.But in my view Ryan totally pulls it off. I enjoyed all this, along with such sentences as
‘Miss Cartwright,’ he said, because he had to say something, ‘I understand you beat off [X] armed only with a Chinese vase.’And then there’s this:
‘Spirits,’ Feda said in a low voice, ‘will you join us?’
introducing the second, even more terrifying, séance – and a fitting and nicely dramatic climax to a smart and entertaining book. (And one that's crying out to be adapted for TV - would make an excellent Xmas drama... )
WC Ryan also writes as William Ryan, and under that name has produced the well-regarded Korolev series of crime novels set in the Stalinist USSR, and I will certainly be reading more of his work.
I wrote about seances in books for the Guardian a while back – a Halloween special. And a post on Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic (featuring a séance and one of the pictures above) lists links to other unearthly activity on the blog.
The yellow dress is by the Viennese artist Max Kurzweil, dates from 1899, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.
The group picture is a 1917 fashion plate from the NY Public Library, so very much what the female characters in the book would be wearing. When I first used it on another post, I said I had been going to just show the left-hand outfit, but it seemed a shame to lose the others (and particularly the hat on the right).
The picture of a séance is by Vaino Kunnas, is in an art gallery in Finland, and is part of the Google Art Project.