Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Psychological thrillers aren’t my favourite genre but I do make time to read anything that comes along by Ruth Ware. She is such a master of atmospheric settings and unreliable narrators. In The Turn of the Key, the story is told in letters from Rowan Caine, a young woman in prison for murdering a child in her care. So potentially, this is about as unreliable as you can get.

Rowan is writing to a top barrister, hoping he will review her case and secure her release. She swears she is innocent. The best way to explain why she’s innocent is to tell him everything as it happened. The story begins with Rowan answering an ad for a live-in nanny for a family in a remote part of Scotland. Sandra and Bill are high-flying architects, their home, Heatherbrae, a modernised Victorian manor with electronics that run everything from the temperature in your shower to the fridge telling you when to buy more milk.

The couple have seen nanny after nanny abandon their four gorgeous girls. Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the house, far from the bright lights. Then again, the children can be a handful (wee Petra is a typical two-year-old, Maddie sullen and scheming, Ellen highly strung and Rhiannon a rebellious teen), but someone as experienced in childcare as Rowan should manage just fine. Is it the controlling and creepy Happy app, that allows Sandra and Bill to tune in to what’s going on at home wherever they are? Or is it something about the house?

The title of the book will soon have you thinking of the Henry James ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, where again we have a nanny killing a child. And there’s definitely something weird and supernatural going on here. Tragedy has struck Heatherbrae before – the ghost of a former owner, the one who planted the walled and locked poison garden, is said to haunt the house. Ware has everything set up for a tense and chilling read.

With the bulk of the story from Rowan’s point of view, we follow her difficulties, first with the children and the spiteful housekeeper – thank goodness she makes a friend in Jack, the hunky handyman – and then with eerie happenings at night. Surely the house can’t really be haunted, can it? Or worse, does it have a mind of its own. It starts to seem a little bit like The Twilight Zone.

Rowan is determined to get to the bottom of things. She’s not a quitter like those other nannies. And like the good-hearted person she is, she develops a fondness for her charges, even stroppy Rhiannon. But there are secrets here as well as creepy happenings and a few terrific twists before we turn the last page.

Ruth Ware has been dubbed ‘the queen of just-one-more-chapter’, and the title is never more fitting than with this novel. I dare you to pick it up and try to put it aside, even if you think you don’t really like psychological thrillers. The Turn of the Key shows Ware at the top of her game. (If you like this one, try The Woman in Cabin 10 which is another doozy.) This one gets a solid four out five from me.

Lockdown Reading 1: A House of Ghosts by W C Ryan

We’re well into several weeks of lockdown and reading has been one way to escape when there’s really nowhere else to go. And you can’t get more escapist than this – a story concerning stolen plans for an aerial torpedo (this is WWI) set in an ancient abbey, complete with mediums and yes, inevitably, ghosts.

A House of Ghosts begins in the offices of Whitehall where a spymaster named C has a new mission for Captain Robert Donovan. It involves spending a weekend on a remote, storm-lashed island at the evocatively named Blackwater Abbey. The Abbey is home to Lord Highmount, a munitions manufacturer – hence the secret plans – which, because of its age and atmosphere, is haunted by multiple ghosts collected over the centuries.

So it’s also an ideal place for a séance. Highmount and his Austrian wife have lost two sons to the carnage of the trenches, and like many grieving families of the time, turn to spiritualism. Enter Count Olav and Madame Feda, two mediums who have become friendly with the Highmounts, as well as Kate Cartwright who is the character that bridges both worlds. Kate also works in Whitehall, but is an old family friend of the Highmounts, ideally placed to give Donovan a hand to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

Kate is very intelligent, carries a pistol and has a talent that has got her into trouble in more genteel settings before – she can see ghosts. Donovan will act as valet to Capt. Rolleston Miller-White, invited as Kate’s fiancé. But along with the two mediums, suspicious because they have inveigled their way into the circle of the Highmounts, Rolleston, with his gambling debts, is also on the suspects list.

As the weather closes the island off from the mainland and the phone-lines are cut, the scene is set for a weekend of suspense, danger and mysterious goings-on. I was reminded of Agatha Christie and John Buchan, but the novel is witty and complex enough to suit a modern reading audience. The characters are quirky and interesting and I loved the way Kate and Donovan bounce off each other – Donovan, the stony-faced man of action; Kate with her matter-of-fact way of dealing with the supernatural.

A House of Ghosts was the perfect book for lockdown, reminding us that things could be a whole lot worse when you’re sequestered somewhere without choice. The plot is nicely paced and the writing intelligent and lively. I shall be looking out for more fiction by W C Ryan. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

For some time I’ve been a fan of Elly Griffiths’ crime series featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson. Griffiths does a great job of creating interesting plots around the watery in-between places of Norfolk, with all the ancient and not-so-ancient history of the setting. She also does terrific characters and has an engaging style that is hard not to like. Her Stephens and Mephisto series is equally well crafted, so I knew I would be in safe hands with the standalone novel The Stranger Diaries.

The story takes place in a small English town where Clare Cassidy teaches English at the local comprehensive school and where her daughter is a student. The old part of the school was once the house of Victorian ghost story writer, R M Holland, and in her spare time Clare is writing a book about his life and the questions around his wife whose ghost still haunts the school.

Clare’s a single mum and has built a pleasantly quiet life with a few friends, until one of them ends up dead. Fellow English teacher Ella has been discovered stabbed to death in her home and the police think it was someone she knew. Clare deals with this in her usual way, by confiding in her diary, but gets an unpleasant surprise when someone starts adding eery messages in spiky Italic writing.

The story is narrated by Clare, her daughter Georgie and also DS Habinder Kaur. Clare is a fairly intangible character (other characters find her cool) and lost in the world of Holland and his famous story ‘The Stranger’ (which is cleverly told in chunks throughout the book), seems to find reality hard to grasp. This makes her the perfect protagonist for things to happen to.

Harbinder is everything Clare is not: gutsy, to the point, and as an ex-pupil of the school, has plenty of interesting stories of her time there. She also lives at home with her parents (and her mum’s wonderful cooking) and dodges the issue of telling them she’s gay by throwing herself into her work. But this case has got her stumped.

The story builds to a thrilling ending as the killer looms ever closer and the cops eventually catch up. As usual Griffiths creates an atmospheric setting, with the haunted Holland house plus Halloween, while her short-story, ‘The Stranger’, would have done M R James proud. I wonder if he was an inspiration for the novel. My only grouch is I found Clare a wishy-washy sort of character; thank goodness for the determined DS Kaur and wilful young Georgie, who give the narration some balance. The supernatural is evoked without seeming ridiculous (ghosts and witchcraft) while DS Kaur grounds us in the real world. This is a light, entertaining read: three and a half out of five from me.