When Harriet Westaway receives an unexpected letter telling her she’s inherited a substantial bequest from her Cornish grandmother, it seems like the answer to her prayers. She owes money to a loan shark and the threats are getting increasingly aggressive: she needs to get her hands on some cash fast.
There’s just one problem – Hal’s real grandparents died more than twenty years ago. The letter has been sent to the wrong person. But Hal knows that the cold-reading techniques she’s honed as a seaside fortune teller could help her con her way to getting the money. If anyone has the skills to turn up at a stranger’s funeral and claim a bequest they’re not entitled to, it’s her.
Hal makes a choice that will change her life for ever. But once she embarks on her deception, there is no going back. She must keep going or risk losing everything, even her life…
Ruth Ware is one of those writers I’ve always wanted to like. Hailed as a modern day Agatha Christie, she writes the sort of twisty, plot driven crime novels that I ordinarily enjoy. But after a somewhat disappointing encounter with her first novel, In A Dark Dark Wood (I found the heroine supremely irritating and put it down about a third of the way in), I’ve not picked up another of her books; despite the many favourable reviews from fellow readers that indicate she’s a writer who has only developed her novelistic prowess since then.
When the opportunity to read her latest novel, The Death of Mrs Westaway, for free on The Pigeonhole arose however, I thought it was probably time to give Ms Ware another go. And I am very glad indeed that I did because The Death of Mrs Westaway provided an eerie and atmospheric dose of crime fiction that had shades of the gothic alongside a good dollop of golden age panache.
The premise, in which down on her luck protagonist Harriet ‘Hal’ Westaway decides to use her cold-reading skills to infiltrate a stranger’s funeral and claim an inheritance, is unique. Deceitful relatives on the hunt for the cash are usually the villains of the piece in crime novels so it was refreshing to read from the perspective of a ‘heroine’ who starts by committing an act of deceit. To Ware’s credit, she provides Hal with a background of misfortune that serves to engage the reader’s empathy, keeping you on Hal’s side even once you’re introduced to the victims of her deception – the other members of the eclectic Westaway family, returned to the fading grandeur of the family seat at Trepassen House and delighted to be united with their long-lost niece, Harriet.
When the will is read out and Harriet becomes sole heir to the Westaway estate however, the stakes in Hal’s game are raised irrevocably and, as Hal herself starts to uncover a possible connection between her real mother and Trepassen House, it becomes apparent that she might be in very real danger from someone who wants long-buried secrets to stay hidden.
The plot twists and turns nicely and kept me guessing about the true identity of the culprit, as well as Hal’s own complex connection to the Westaway family, until the closing chapters. I also really enjoyed the inclusion of tarot as a means of bringing an eerie supernatural element into the novel – it reminded me of Christie’s use of a ‘gypsy curse’ in Endless Night and was played for similar effect by Ware, whilst also giving the reader insight into this fascinating and ancient practice.
Trepassen House itself is also a fantastic character in the novel. Evoking all the faded glamour of a golden age country house, it provides an atmospheric backdrop for the family secrets and tangled web of lies that Hal has to uncover and unpick. Ware’s writing, especially her descriptions of place, are evocative and you get a real sense of Trepassen’s isolation and rain-soaked gloom.
If I’m being picky, the novel does have the occasional deus ex machina at work – there’s a convenient snow storm about three-quarters of the way through, for example – and there’s nothing especially original in the way Hal goes about discovering the Westaway family secrets.
Some of the character development is also a little lacking, For example, it really irritated me that Hal kept reminding herself about the mousey, timid persona she has chosen to play whilst at Trepassen, despite the fact that by that point in the books, she’d lapsed out of that role on numerous occasions without drawing comment from her ‘family’. And the Westaway family themselves, whilst numerous, aren’t always the most memorable of creatures. But can any Agatha Christie fan say that, beyond her mainstay detectives and their regular sidekicks, they recall the side characters in the majority of her novels?
Plot, coupled with an engaging lead, was always they key driver of a Christie novel the same is true of The Death of Mrs Westaway. I for one was drawn along by the narrative and eager to find out how the story ended, what secrets Trepassen House was holding within its walls and why fierce matriarch Mrs Westaway had chosen Hal to come and uncover them. If you forgive its minor flaws, The Death of Mrs Westaway is an atmospheric and pacy mystery that plays with the tropes of the golden age classics whilst updating them for the mobile phone era. It’s definitely converted me to Ruth Ware’s fiction and I’m looking forward to reading her much-lauded second book ‘The Woman in Cabin 10’ in the near future.
The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware is published by Harvill Secker and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. I read the book for free on The Pigeonhole; the online book club in your pocket, so my thanks go to them for giving me the opportunity to read along and provide an honest and unbiased review.