THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY by Ruth Ware
Gallery/Scout Press; 5/29/18
CBTB Rating: 5/5
The Verdict: unputdownable, gothic-inspired suspense - my favorite Ware book yet
If you know me, you know I love Ruth Ware. Her books have been a staple of Crime by the Book ever since I started this blog—in fact, IN A DARK, DARK WOOD was actually one of my first-ever CBTB-specific purchases! I have a certain amount of nostalgia tied up in Ware’s writing; her books have been there for me through this whole book blogging adventure, and always manage to strike the right tone for me as a reader. To top it all off: Ware is one of those authors who continually reinvents herself with each new novel, giving readers stories that are fresh, inventive, and totally engaging—all while maintaining that trademark Ruth Ware pacing and tone that I love so much. All of this is simply to say: when I first read that Ware had announced the title and plot of her 2018 release, THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY, I immediately started a countdown to it… and today I’m so thrilled to share a (very) early review of this unputdownable, quasi-gothic story of family secrets. THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY is another outstanding novel of psychological suspense from an author who has quickly earned her title of "modern-day Agatha Christie." Dare I say it? THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY is my favorite Ruth Ware book yet.
On a day that begins like any other, Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but also that the cold-reading skills she’s honed as a tarot card reader might help her claim the money.
Soon, Hal finds herself at the funeral of the deceased…where it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it.
Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, this is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.
Where does an author go when he or she has written as much that’s been as well-received as has Ruth Ware? In this case, the author just continues on her upward trajectory—a remarkable feat that Ware has somehow made look effortless (though I can only imagine the countless hours and incredible amount of work that have gone into making this happen). Ware has cemented a reputation for herself as “the Agatha Christie of our time,” and this title is perhaps nowhere as well-represented as it is in THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY. In this modern-day suspense story tinged with a gothic atmosphere, Ware highlights her keen ability to blend past and present, delivering an on-trend crime novel with a deep bow to crime fiction classics. Of all Ware’s titles, THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY might be her most effective ode to crime fiction’s past yet, delivering not only a plot worthy of an Agatha Christie novel, but an atmosphere and setting worthy of one, too. Prepare to be completely immersed in this book’s richly-developed world; from its family secrets to the gothic mansion where they play out, THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY is every bit a story that would make the Queen of Crime proud.
One of my personal favorite - and least-anticipated - elements of this book came in the profession of its protagonist, Hal, and in the many ways this profession connects her to her family throughout the novel. Hal is a tarot card reader who runs a booth at a pier in Brighton, where she spends her days “cold reading” her customers and anticipating what they’re hoping to learn from their card readings. It’s a job that connects Hal to her now-deceased mother, who started the booth years prior—and it’s also a job that has taught Hal some very valuable skills that soon come in handy when she finds herself infiltrating a family and claiming to be someone she isn't. I love a good hook in my crime books, and this one - the protagonist who uses her “cold reading” abilities to creative (or illegal) ends - was incredibly effective. Add to this instantly-engaging angle the air of mystery and intrigue that comes with Hal’s tarot cards, and you have a recipe for "just-one-more-page" addictive suspense. Hal might not be a believer in the authenticity of her cards, but her relationship with them - and with the family legacy they come to represent - develops and grows over the course of the novel in effective and engaging ways. Hal's card readings are almost like guideposts throughout the book, marking significant moments in Hal's life, and tying her to her mother before her.
And speaking of Hal: readers will be thrilled to know that Hal is an absolute breath of fresh air as a protagonist. There’s nothing wrong with the “unreliable narrator”, but I loved discovering that Ware hasn’t focused this book on a woman with a drinking problem or a spotty memory; instead, we have Hal, the spunky, spirited, resourceful young woman who (despite some lapses in judgment) never fails to earn readers’ sympathy with her independence and discipline. Don’t get me wrong - Hal is by no means a role model, and I’m definitely not suggesting that you try to lie about your identity to claim a massive fortune for yourself. But there’s something undeniably admirable about Hal, no matter how much we know her choices are wrong. She’s all alone in the world in her early twenties; her mother passed away at a young age and she has no other close family, and Hal is now struggling to get by. She's indebted to a loan shark when we meet her, and is simply overwhelmed by her situation. She has a terrible lapse in judgment, to be sure, but her good heart and genuine likability make it impossible to root against her. She’s quick-witted and supremely endearing—readers will quickly find themselves firmly in Hal’s corner.
Last but certainly not least, it would be impossible to discuss this book without mentioning the absolutely impeccable sense of place Ware has crafted here. The gothic mansion at the core of this book is as formidable as are the secrets it houses. I could picture this building, with its iron gates, yard full of magpies, and many, many dark, dusty rooms, planted squarely in the midst of my favorite Agatha Christie novel, ENDLESS NIGHT. Ware has done an outstanding job making the house a character unto itself, filled with personality and troubled memories all its own. Though this isn’t technically a “locked room mystery,” many elements of THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY do function in this way: the book has a limited cast of characters, and there are many instances in which they are relatively sequestered from the world, working to unpack long-hidden family secrets. This is not a violent or twist-driven suspense story; it's a quietly propulsive novel that gets its energy and tension from the unraveling of the ties that bind a dysfunctional family together. From its locale to its protagonist to its brooding atmosphere, THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY is sure to be a hit with Ware's legion of fans worldwide. My only complaint? I wish this book hadn’t had to end.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press (May 29, 2018)
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