Ryan, best known as William Ryan for his three historical novels about Moscow police captain Alexei Korolev (The Twelfth Department, 2013, etc.), goes back even further in time for some homefront intrigue in 1917 England.
The ostensible reason the Secret Intelligence Service sends Capt. Robert Donovan (not his real name) down to Blackwater Island, off the Devon coast, is to protect Lord Francis Highmount and his Austrian-born wife, Lady Elizabeth Highmount, during what looks like a fraught weekend party. The SIS doesn’t bother to give a reason why Donovan should be joined by Naval Intelligence codebreaker Kate Cartwright. The guests providing cover for Kate, who’d already turned down an invitation to the gathering, include her titled parents and Capt. Rolleston Miller-White, a plausible scoundrel to whom she was once engaged. The most important skill Kate brings to the party is one she’s kept secret: She can see spirits. That makes her an ideal person to test the claims of Madame Feda and Count Orlov, a pair of mediums taken up by Lady Elizabeth, who hopes to get into contact with the sons who haven’t returned from the war. Algernon Highmount is missing, presumed dead; there’s no doubt at all that his brother Reginald, Kate’s late fiance, was killed. Once the island is duly isolated from the mainland by bad weather and deliberate sabotage, Ryan pulls out all the stops. Blackwater Abbey, “built on a graveyard,” features bloodstained staircases, secret passages, and all the nooks and crannies needed to keep the dozen guests and residents from providing solid alibis to each other when one of them is murdered. There’ll be séances, unmaskings, things that go bump in the night, voices from beyond the grave, and revelations of several different characters’ unsuspectedly dark connections to the Great War.
Throughout the alarums and excursions, the low-maintenance heroine maintains a composure that should serve her well in the promised series.