“It’s a dark and stormy night….the November winds are howling around the house as the last of the leaves go scurrying across the yard. Inside, all is silent except for the sound of sleet pinging against the window. It will be snow tomorrow.”
Thus reads my journal entry for last weekend. We had eight inches of snow on Monday, Veteran’s Day, a record for this early in the season. It was the perfect day to snuggle inside and read a good book, preferably one with lots of atmosphere.
Gothic mystery is heavy on atmosphere – there’s always a haunted house with a dark history, a slightly sinister caretaker, an unexplained murder or two and some ghostly phenomena to set the proper tone of creepy ambiance. Add in a determined but solitary heroine who confronts terror head on, and a dash of potential romance with a male of the strong and silent type, and the genre is complete. Dauphne du Mauier’s Rebecca, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights set the bar high for this standard. But if you want a modern update on the Gothic mystery then Ruth Ware’s latest book, The Turn of the Key, provides a modern twist – a haunted house with Smart technology set on the windswept Scottish moors…but maybe it’s not a good idea to be too Smart.
The Publishers Blurb:
When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.
What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unraveling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant. It was everything.
She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.
This is the third Ruth Ware book I have read, and by far her best. I blogged about The Death of Mrs. Westaway in last years post A Gothic Read for Halloween. While I enjoyed that book, it took over a hundred pages to establish the protagonist as young, poor and alone, although she did an excellent job of describing what it’s like to live never knowing where your next meal is coming from. While The Woman in Cabin Ten was more of a psychological thriller, her last two books rely on the haunted mansion theme to supply the needed atmosphere. Her first book, In a Dark Dark Wood, was my least favorite but they were all good reads. I do love it when I discover a new author and find she churns out a new book every year that I know in advance will be good. So often I pick up a promising thriller in the library, start into it and then abandon it from sheer boredom.
The Turn of the Key is told in first person, which is not my favorite, being so limited in scope, but somehow it works. The young protagonist isn’t even all that likable, as many of her heroines aren’t, and they’re not always the brightest either. If someone offered you a nanny position with high pay, but you knew the four previous nannies had quit, would you take it on? You would if you were poor and struggling….and had another reason. Scotland seems a popular locale for books these days but there isn’t even that much about it in the book. At the center is the house with its modern Smart technology – the owners are IT/tech specialists who travel extensively (thus the need for the nanny), so the house is equipped with all the bells and whistles to control everything from lighting to music to locks. Well, someone is controlling it….
The annual hospital lottery Dream Home in my neck of the woods is equipped with all the latest technology, and although I intend to buy a ticket I’m not sure I would want to live in such a place. It creeps me out knowing that Smart TVs and Alexa are listening in on our conversations, but perhaps I am too old-fashioned and you grow used to all these modern devices and wonder how you ever lived without them. I’ve noticed that many of the protagonists in her books tend to have a wee bit of a drinking problem. This is a plot device which started with The Girl on the Train but the fuzzy alcoholic memory thing has been overdone IMO. Or perhaps it is just a reflection of the popularity of binge drinking among young women. I don’t know, we never had the money or the inclination for that type of recreation. (Note – the protagonist in The Woman in Cabin Ten is drunk throughout the whole cruise). Other than that small criticism, the plot here is nicely revealed and the ending well done although perplexing in some ways. Technology is great but it can sometimes make life more complicated. Perhaps there’s something to be said for old haunted houses full of ghosts who aren’t too Smart….