“The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware

The Turn of the KeyIf last year’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway took inspiration from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, then the title of Ruth Ware’s latest thriller, The Turn of the Key, seems to pay homage to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. I’ve never read James’ novella, but according to an interview, Ware herself hadn’t read it either when she began writing: “I vaguely knew what the plot was, that it was about a governess and ghosts, but that was about it… It was only about halfway through that the penny dropped. At that point I decided that I had better read The Turn of the Screw so I knew what I was dealing with and so that I could ensure any overlaps were deliberate rather than accidental.”

Screw was published in 1898, while Key is undeniably a product of the 21st century, with most of the action taking place in a “smart house” in Scotland owned by two architects. The Elincourts have four children and are seeking a nanny who is willing to relocate to their remote Highlands home, a Victorian lodge that’s been modernized with a wide array of cutting-edge features. Lights, heat, phones, curtains, the coffeemaker and the shower—all those and more are controlled by the “Happy” system.

Rowan Caine figures dealing with the complicated app is a small price to pay for what seems like the perfect job, thanks to its fat salary and the luxurious environs of Heatherbrae House. But then she starts hearing frightening sounds, including footsteps from the supposedly sealed-up attic above her room, and mysterious shrieks that definitely aren’t coming from her young charges. One of the daughters, eight-year-old Maddie, seems convinced that they are sharing the house with ghosts. The fact that several previous nannies had left the Elincourts’ employ abruptly seem to indicate that something is very wrong.

Rowan may not believe in ghosts, but when both parents have to go out of town, leaving her alone with the children, the spooky goings-on accelerate, driving her nearly to the point of madness. “Suddenly… I understood what dark terrors had driven those four previous nannies out of their post and away. To lie here, night after night, listening, waiting, staring into the darkness at that locked door, that open keyhole gaping into blackness… I would not sleep again tonight. I knew that now.”

The Turn of the Key is an ideal Halloween read, though I must admit that I found the ending rather disappointing, as Ware throws in perhaps one twist too many. If you’re not already a fan of her work, this is perhaps not the best book to start with (I’d recommend either Mrs. Westaway or The Woman in Cabin 10), but all of her talent for creating a creepy, evocative mood is on full display here, and Key does provide plenty of gothic, spooky fun.

“The Death of Mrs. Westaway” by Ruth Ware

The Death of Mrs. WestawayRuth Ware’s fourth novel, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, seems to draw a lot of its inspiration from Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. There’s a Cornish mansion, a sinister housekeeper, secrets galore, and a young heroine who has no idea what lies ahead of her when she arrives at the stately home.

Hal (née Harriet) Westaway is dead broke—in fact, she’s in debt to a loan shark—when she receives a letter from an attorney informing her that her grandmother has died and Hal is a beneficiary of her will. This comes as something of a shock, since the parents of her late single mother, Margarida Westaway, are both dead. Hal figures it has to be a mistake, but perhaps all she needs to do is show up for the funeral and reading of the will, and if she’s lucky, she’ll inherit enough money to make her problems go away. So she takes the train down to Penzance and finds herself at Trepassen House, a crumbling, ivy-covered estate. The housekeeper, Mrs. Warren, is decidedly unfriendly, putting Hal up in a freezing attic room with a barred window and locks on the outside of the door.

Eventually, Hal meets the late Mrs. Westaway’s offspring and their respective families, who don’t exactly give her a warm welcome either. Somehow, she needs to figure out a way to trick them all into believing that she is the daughter of their long-lost sister Maud, who disappeared without a trace many years ago, without seeming like so much of a threat that somebody will be tempted to kill her in order to keep all those secrets intact.

Hal is a clever and resourceful heroine and I found the book to be great fun, if a bit portentous at times. (“There was a sudden spatter of fresh rain against the glass, and she thought she heard—though perhaps it was her fancy—the far-off sound of waves against a shore. An image came into Hal’s mind—of rising waters, closing above all of their heads, while Mrs. Westaway laughed from beyond the grave…”) But for those of us who enjoy this gloriously Gothic type of novel, The Death of Mrs. Westaway offers solid summertime entertainment.

“The Lying Game” by Ruth Ware

The Lying GameAfter last year’s blockbuster The Woman in Cabin 10, British author Ruth Ware is back with her third thriller, The Lying Game. The online reviewers who blasted Cabin 10‘s protagonist, Lo, for not being sufficiently likable should be happier with new heroine Isa, a young mum whose main priority is her baby Freya:

“She is mine and my responsibility. Anything could happen—she could choke in her sleep, the house could burn down, a fox could slink into the open bathroom window and maul her. And so I sleep with one ear cocked, ready to leap up, heart pounding, at the least sign that something is wrong.”

As the book begins, Isa is summoned to the village of Salten by her old boarding-school friend Kate. Two other former classmates, Fatima and Thea, are also called. The four women have wound up in very different circumstances in the two decades since they were at school together. Fatima is a married doctor with two children, and she’s also become a practicing Muslim; Thea is a mess, anorexic and alcoholic; Isa is a civil servant living with her partner (and Freya’s dad) Owen. They are all Londoners, while Kate has remained in Salten, where her father once served on the faculty of the school. She is either unwilling or unable to move on with her life.

The book builds slowly, since the reader doesn’t know exactly what’s going on until almost halfway through. We know that Kate’s summons is a very big deal, important enough to make her three former besties drop everything and come running. Something big happened at the school to cause the quartet to get expelled. In the present day, we learn that a human bone recently turned up on Salten’s beach; that is presumably the reason for Kate wanting to get the gang back together, but it takes a while to learn whose bone it is and how and why it may affect the women.

The title of the book implies that no one can truly be trusted—it refers to a game the girls played in school, where they would try to lie convincingly and win points if outsiders fell for it. (They vowed never to lie to each other, though eventually the reader may suspect that perhaps Freya is the only character with nothing to hide.) Unlike Cabin 10, which kept me up late into the night furiously turning the pages, The Lying Game moves at a more leisurely pace; its biggest assets are its diverse, well-rounded quartet of main characters, and Ware’s vivid descriptions of the joys and terrors of motherhood.

Note: The Lying Game will be published on July 25, 2017. Thanks to Gallery Books/Scout Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

“The Woman in Cabin 10” by Ruth Ware

The Woman in Cabin 10I’ve never wanted to take a cruise on one of those giant ocean liners—the odds of coming down with norovirus or another horrible infection seem entirely too high. But a fancy river cruise or a voyage on a luxury yacht? Yes please.

The Woman in Cabin 10, which could do for luxury cruising what “Psycho” did for showers, may have changed my mind. This is a stay-up-late, edge-of-your seat thriller about a young travel writer who sets off to cover the maiden voyage of a posh vessel and winds up overhearing a woman in the neighboring cabin being killed and thrown overboard. No one else on the ship will acknowledge that the alleged victim ever existed, or even that she was onboard at all. Since the protagonist, Lo, is another one of those popular modern constructions, the Unreliable Lady Narrator, not even the reader knows what to think. After all, Lo takes medication for her anxiety, she drinks too much, and she’s trying to get over a traumatic event (a home-invasion burglary right before she set sail) that has caused her to suffer epic bouts of insomnia.

In the grand tradition of village mysteries, Cabin 10 features a small cast of suspects (including Lo’s ex-boyfriend). Even the most luxurious of settings, like the ship’s high-end spa, take on a sinister cast.

If things get a little implausible toward the end, I didn’t mind; I was too busy turning the pages. After my dad mentioned that a lot of the reviewers on a popular online retailer’s website had posted negative opinions of Cabin 10, I figured I should take a look. Predictably, a lot of people are criticizing Lo as being too troubled, too drunk, not a nice person. Personally, I’m not bothered by any of that; I always suspect that many readers of both genders are harder on female protagonists (I almost used the word “antihero,” but I don’t think that really describes Lo). She’s an interesting person caught up in a terrible situation, and she turns out to be incredibly strong. And the plot surprised me at every turn. If you can handle a flawed narrator, and if you have a few hours of uninterrupted reading time (this would be an excellent airplane book), I highly recommend The Woman in Cabin 10.