A House of Ghosts by W. C. Ryan debuted in Bas Bleu’s Spring Reading Collection: Mysteries, and we’d hoped to interview the novelist several months ago. But then the world went into lockdown, and A House of Ghosts was among the many novels flying off the shelves to entertain readers hunkered down at home. Thankfully, inventory has improved in recent weeks, and this spooky tale is back in stock! The historical mystery about a remote house party in World War I-era England, where secrets simmer and ghosts swarm, kept our reviewer up reading long past her bedtime. Recently (and without giving away any spoilers!), W. C. Ryan spoke to us from his home in England about the popularity of spiritualism during World War I, the authors and experiences that influence his work, and the romantic power of a pack of good books.
Bas Bleu: In this era of COVID-19, we must begin by asking: How are you? To quote Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy: “I trust your family is in good health?” How (if at all) has the pandemic affected your writing routine?
W. C. Ryan: I am well and my family has been in good health but I suspect I’m not the only one who feels it has been a strange period to have lived through. As for work, I usually write in a library—a bit like going to an office—and I haven’t been able to do that. Writing at home has been harder than I would have thought and hasn’t been helped by my nine-year-old son’s online schooling, which is surprisingly intense (again, I don’t think I’m the only one who has had this experience). On the other hand, it’s been great to spend more time with him and, like everyone else, we’re looking forward to things getting back to normal as soon as possible.
BB: Your previous novels are set in the Soviet Union and Germany, yet you’re an Irishman who lives in London. What led you so far afield in your early books? And what inspired you to set A House of Ghosts back home in the UK?
WR: I’ve always been interested in how ordinary people cope in totalitarian regimes, where good is perceived as evil and evil is considered good and where standing up for your moral beliefs can have consequences for not only you, but your family and friends as well. My interest in Soviet Russia came about through a writer called Isaac Babel who was executed in 1939, but people still didn’t know what had happened to him until the fall of the Soviet Union. My three Captain Korolev novels feature a police detective investigating a single murder while around him the state are murdering hundreds of thousands. The Constant Soldier was based on some photographs taken at a rest hut for the SS who worked at Auschwitz, and was written in part, from the perspective of an SS officer. I think after all that it was quite a relief to write a supernatural murder mystery set on a remote island!
BB: A House of Ghosts takes place in England in 1917, three years after World War I began. That conflict has a very different legacy in the United States than it does in Europe, due in large part to our late entry into the war. Can you explain to American readers how you think WWI shaped the British psyche?
WC: Three quarters of a million British soldiers died in a four-year-long industrialized massacre, so it certainly left its mark. Possibly the worst thing for the individual soldier was that he had very little control over his fate—most of the dead were killed from a distance, either from artillery shells or poison gas, or while attacking heavy machine guns—so skill and bravery really didn’t help. Many of those who survived, unsurprisingly, lost confidence in the old order and the idea of an imperial Britain. Many good things came as a result, such as the beginnings of a welfare state, votes for women and ordinary working-class men (up until 1917 there was a property restriction), and the end of colonialism. It was still a terrible price to pay, however.
BB: Spiritualism predated WWI, but the movement seems to have experienced a surge of popularity during the war and the ensuing years. Why do you think that is? Death, grief, and the belief in life after death certainly weren’t novel for twentieth-century humans. What was it about that specific point in time that leant itself to the popularity of spiritualism?
WR: It was probably the scale of the destruction as much as anything, and the fact that many soldiers literally disappeared, either buried in the mud, or obliterated by heavy artillery. Even if the dead did have a recorded grave, the body never came home, so there was a real need for some kind of closure. Spiritualism, for all its faults, provided families and loved ones with a way of coming to terms with their grief.
BB: We have to ask: Do you believe in ghosts? Did researching and writing this novel change your perspective at all?
WR: I have spent enough time in haunted houses to be pretty convinced of their existence. I don’t think they are particularly frightening, though—the experiences I know about or have witnessed have been a little like a recording of a past event. In other words, the ghosts are doing their own thing and don’t really interact with our world. The fictional ghosts in A House of Ghosts are more active, but they also, deliberately, aren’t very frightening. One of the characters, Kate, is able to see them all around her, so for her they have become quite boring—an inconvenience almost.
BB: In recent years the public has learned more about British women who worked as codebreakers and computers during World War II. Your protagonist, Kate Cartwright, is working as a codebreaker for the British Secret Intelligence Service when she’s selected for the special assignment at Blackwater Abbey. According to your research, did many women serve in intelligence roles during World War I?
WR: A few women were codebreakers, on both sides of the Atlantic. Elizebeth Friedman was a groundbreaking American codebreaker from 1917 onwards, and Winifred White broke codes for the British from 1916 until the end of World War II. British codebreaking was occasionally very effective. The Zimmermann telegram, a German invitation to the Mexican government to invade America, was decoded by the British, and its publication was a significant factor in the United States’ entry into World War I on the Allied side.
BB: Fans of Golden Age crime novelists like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers are familiar with “big house” mysteries. What advantages—and challenges—does this classic style present for a writer?
WR: The most obvious advantage is that all of your characters are cooped up for the duration of the novel with a killer who, likely as not, will kill again. Of course, the challenge is making the story original, but I mixed in other genres and wasn’t too worried about subverting some of the conventions of the country house murder mystery. As a result, A House of Ghosts can be read either as a murder mystery, a ghost story, a spy novel, a romance, or a mixture of all four. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a serious underlying theme, but it’s very much an entertainment. I certainly enjoyed writing it, and readers seem to have enjoyed reading it, so far at least, and that’s often the most important indication of success.
BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
WR: Many of my favorite novels from childhood are historical—I, Claudius and Count Belisarius by Robert Graves would certainly be on the list, as well as Sir Nigel and The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin naval novels. I also enjoyed reading crime novels from a very early age, including the Golden Age crime novelists but also the likes of Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, and also Dashiell Hammett. So I suppose it makes sense that I ended up writing historical crime. In terms of writers and novels that influenced A House of Ghosts, I think I’d have to tip my hat towards Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, John Buchan and John Le Carré. If that sounds like a very adult list, it has to be said that I read a huge amount from a very early age—often two or three books a day.
BB: Which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?
WR: I once wooed someone with a package of my favorite books, so I have a ready answer to this:
- Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer
- The Mortdecai Trilogy by Kyril Bonfiglioli
- Fludd by Hilary Mantel
- Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado
- Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene
- Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
- Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
- The Shrimp and The Anemone by LP Hartley
I don’t know if it works on everyone but it worked that time.
BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?
WR: I have two more novels on the way, which are not direct sequels to A House of Ghosts but some of the same characters will pass through their pages. The Winter Guest will hopefully come out next year and is set in the Irish War of Independence. It’s another murder mystery with ghostly goings on and various dubious characters up to no good and, yes, it’s shaping up very nicely. The Spanish Affair takes place against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and is more of a straightforward spy novel. After that, who knows?
BB: Thank you, W. C. Ryan, for sharing your thoughts with us. Stay well!
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