It should be said up front that this is the fourth book in a series, and I have not read the prior three. Rest assured there is plenty of context to the prior installment and, should you like this one, you’ll know there is plenty more.
Place-based thrillers, especially a series that digs deep into the history of a locale, fictional or not (the latter represented best by Stephen King’s Castle Rock, Maine), invite the reader into a detailed world full of mysterious characters and a cumulative lore that one-offs and stories less tied to place often do not.
In this case, the acknowledgments indicate that the author spent considerable time on the islands and used a real-life apartment where she stayed as the model for the one in the novel (with permission of the owner). Blackthorn also indicates that the history presented about the islands and the villa are, to the best of her knowledge, true.
As a writer of historical fiction with thriller and paranormal elements, I appreciate the amount of work that went into the world-building in this book. Almost Dickensian in its detail, The Ghost of Villa Winter invites the reader to step in deeply into this at-times dire and deadly locale and explore the nooks and crannies with the heroine.
Further, given the popularity of Escape Rooms and the way they have infiltrated storytelling on television and in film, and to some degree in novels, the amount of detail Blackthorn employs in the layout of buildings, landscapes, and living spaces allows the reader to participate vicariously in a popular form of puzzle-solving.
The lead character, Clarissa Wilkinson, a former mortuary attendant, is in the area to visit a man in prison whom she is convinced is (partly) innocent. Working against her is her niece, who is partly responsible for putting him in prison. What makes this setup interesting is that the man, whom Clarissa characterizes as her Jean Genet, is guilty of certain crimes—just not of murder.
Classic Agatha Christie in its bringing together of a group of disparate individuals, many of whom seem suspicious (and perhaps for no other reason than their foreignness to one another), The Ghost of Villa Winter makes use of this device to further explore the geography, as the group tours around the island, seeking insights into one another and commenting on the lore of the land, which involves that sturdy old chestnut, the Nazis.
Among the group is a bestselling but currently struggling mystery writer named Richard. With her keen observational skills and amateur sleuth mindset, Clarissa soon becomes his companion—triggering snickers and nudge nudge, wink wink comments from the others in the group. Especially considering he is already in an albeit toxic relationship.
I am always interested in writers writing about writers. We’re quite a collection of social mannerism oddities and anxieties and tend to be more in our heads, creating worlds and characters, rather than fully being in this one with its at times far less interesting individuals.
The ghost referred to in the title, which appears only to Clarissa, setting her on a quest the same way Hamlet’s father does, is a German general and engineer who moved to the islands but could not escape ongoing rumors of his being a Nazi agent.
Those with an interest in the persistent theory that Hitler and many of his command staff survived and relocated to Argentina and elsewhere (where they paid for plastic surgery to ensure their secret) will immediately feel at home. U boats are central to this theory, and Blackthorn includes them here.
It is when Clarissa and Richard become separated from the group that the tension and stakes really ratchet up, and the novel becomes more action-oriented, putting the pair in nearly constant danger for the next several hundred pages.
Thankfully, they still have opportunities to collect and assess evidence, further extending the Escape Room feel. And, because amateur sleuthing has become increasingly prevalent online, especially through Reddit and Facebook groups—brought to light in a recent documentary on the Cecile Hotel and mysterious death of Elisa Lam—the reader can again “play along” as Clarissa discovers and assesses the clues.
As the story progresses, the meta becomes the micro, as Clarissa and Richard discuss the plusses and minuses of place-based thrillers, the rise of amateur sleuthing and what it has done to the mystery genre, and the technical aspects of crime-solving, such as “means, motive, and opportunity.” For paranormal enthusiasts, there’s even a moment when Clarissa’s assessment of why a piece of tech failed might have an alternate explanation…
As the clock ticks and murders mount, Clarissa and Richard are forced to cross the line from theory to action, ramping up the tension and pace of The Ghost of Villa Winter toward its tragic—and satisfying—Act Three climax.
Not wanting to give away any more of the plentiful “Easter eggs” for the mystery, paranormal, astrology, Escape Room, and true crime enthusiasts in the audience (and these days, that covers most of the reader-verse), I will leave it there.
It’s time to book a virtual room on the Canary Islands, near to Villa Winter, and join in the sleuthing. You’ll be glad you did.
Learn more about the author and her books at https://www.
TITLE: The Ghost of Villa Winter (Canary Islands Mysteries Book 4)
AUTHOR: Isobel Blackthorn
PUBLISHER: Gumshoe—A Next Chapter Imprint