McFarland's old strengths (The Music Room, 1990; School for the Blind, 1994) are less evident this time: His often golden style survives, but psychology and focus are bungled in this tale of a man paying for the sins of his past through encounters with ghosts in the present. Cookson Selway travels for a month in London with his wife Ellen, a writer of mystery novels who wants to do location research. The couple book into the quaint Hotel Willerton, where all seems fine until Cook begins acting strangely, cursing in his sleep, waking up exhausted and reeking of whiskey--all signs of relapse into the depraved life of drugs and booze he'd lived earlier while making his millions as a drugged and dishonest restaurateur in Manhattan and before the purifying miracle of his daughter Jordie's birth (Jordie, now a teenager, is in boarding school back in Cambridge). As much as Ellen pleads, and as much as Cook swears he'll pull himself together, ""The Strange Business at the Hotel Willerton"" forms a spiral downward--though a painfully slow one as hint after pseudo-Jamesian hint crawls by (""This wordy explanation will have to do. It's the only one I have"") before the ""ghosts"" in the old hotel finally manifest themselves openly by sucking energy from the living Cook. By that time, the ghosts' tales of family murder and long-ago vileness will seem related only distantly to the sins of Cook's own reams-ago and dimly remembered life (his redneck father, one cause of early Cookian guilt, murdered a black man and got off easy), and what takes over instead of deepening character are the mechanics of how ghosts function and what they do."" 'I'm very tired,'"" one of them says,"" 'This takes a toll, you know, all this emerging. It's a great pleasure in its own way, but it does take a toll.'"" Many will concur at the finish of this tiresome book that aimed high, but got paled out, then hit low.