If 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.