If Christmas for Bookhound means crime, it also means ghosts. I usually tend to go for fairly traditional ghost stories - M.R. James or other early twentieth century classics. This year I stumbled across Helen Dunmore's The greatcoat. Helen Dunmore wrote one of my very favourite novels, The siege, a beautifully observed tale set during the Siege of Leningrad. The mixture of spooks and a favourite novelist made the combination irresistible.

I loved The greatcoat. It is a haunting tale in every sense of the word. Like The siege and Andrew Greig's That summer, The greatcoat is brilliant at evoking time and place. The story is a simple one, but one that has elements that will be familiar to every reader. A newly married couple move to their first home, a flat in 1950s Yorkshire. Britain is still in the grip of rationing and trying to recover from the losses of the Second World War while resolutely trying to maintain a stiff upper lip. Isabel, the heroine, becomes increasingly lonely as her hard-working doctor husband is out all the time. While shivering in the flat one night, she finds an old RAF greatcoat which she flings over the bed. Shortly afterwards there is a tap at the window, and the captain of a Lancaster bomber is standing there.

At first Isabel doesn't realise she is being haunted, but as the now derelict airfield starts to spring into life, the worlds of the 1940s and the 1950s start to meld together. 

This novel works on so many levels. The background and time are well delineated, although it's a ghost story it's very believable, and, in the best traditions of the genre, there is a slight twist in the tail that gives the reader that unsettling ending that makes for the best ghost stories. Most of all it's beautifully written. Although it is a conventional ghost story complete with a spook, it also deals with the hauntings that everyone deals with on a daily basis - how do you cope with your past? How do you remember those you have lost? And how does the history of where you are impact on you? It manages to be both a haunting ghostly tale, a love story, and also a novel that makes you think. I adored it, and would happily recommend it to anyone looking for a spooky well written tale, with great character.

Incidentally the novel was commissioned by that doyenne of the British horror scene, Hammer, best known for their films, and, presumably, trying to branch out into fiction. If the rest of their publications come anywhere near the level of this novel they will be a bright light (or at least a rather spooky glow) in the world of horror fiction.


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