Ruth Ware’s latest suspense novel has a lot to measure up to. Its predecessor, “The Death of Mrs. Westaway,” was one of the best mystery novels of 2018, brilliantly repurposing just about every cobwebby prop in the Gothic warehouse, including a disputed inheritance, a crumbling ancestral mansion and a terrified-but-plucky young heroine. Ware sets expectations even higher by burdening her new novel with a brazen title: “The Turn of the Key.” What kind of suspense writer would be so reckless as to invoke Henry James’s masterpiece of terror and ambiguity and expect to see her own work do anything but suffer in the comparison?
Happily, the answer is: a superb suspense writer who is dead set on making her own distinctive mark on the governess-alone-with-weird-children-in-an-isolated-house formula. “The Turn of the Key” pays scrupulous homage to James’s “The Turn of the Screw” and also slyly updates it. Ware sets her tale in an old mansion that’s been renovated into “smart house.” So sinister is the home’s thick assortment of blinking surveillance cameras, talking refrigerators, embedded phone and speaker systems, and misfiring lights and locks that it’s a toss-up as to whether the alleged ghosts or the rogue gadgets are ultimately responsible for shattering our poor heroine’s fragile nerves.
We readers know that 27-year-old governess Rowan Caine is in torment from very first pages. Ware introduces her through a series of letters she’s writing to a renowned barrister from the prison cell where she’s languishing. Rowan has been charged with the murder of one of the four children who’d been under her care. (Cleverly, then, “The Turn of the Key” opens on the very same horrifying situation that “The Turn of the Screw” concludes on: the alleged murder of a child by a governess.) Rowan’s story unfolds in halting fashion through these letters, in which she describes how she came to take the position at Heatherbrae House in the remote Scottish Highlands and how things turned ghastly as soon as her employers — a posh couple with their own architecture practice — depart the premises to attend a faraway trade show.
Another thing we readers know from the get-go is that Rowan is not quite leveling with us. Again, like James’s governess — one of literature’s most unreliable narrators — Rowan can be vague, particularly about her reasons for pursuing this particular job so doggedly. After all, what sane job candidate would proceed with the interview process after receiving this letter of invitation from her prospective employer:
“There is one thing I must make you aware of up front, in case it affects your enthusiasm for the post. Since we bought Heatherbrae we have become aware of various superstitions surrounding the house’s history. It is an old building and has had no more than the usual number of deaths and tragedies in its past, but for some reason these have resulted in some local tales of hauntings, etc. Unfortunately, this fact has upset some of our recent nannies, to the extent that four have resigned in the past fourteen months.”
Rowan, Nanny No. 5, won’t have the luxury of resigning.
Ware is a master at signaling the presence of evil at the most mundane moments. Take the scene where Rowan, alone in the kitchen, is clearing up the children’s supper of alphabet pasta, only to find a nasty message spelled out diagonally on a plate of congealed spaghetti sauce: “WEH AT EU” (Hint: Say it quickly.)
Other scenes are no less chilling even if they are more stock: mysterious dead-of-night footsteps; a locked garden filled with poisonous plants, and the off-kilter weirdness of Heatherbrae House itself. Rowan’s employers have torn the house asunder: In one half, they’ve restored the Victorian architectural details and furnishings; in the other, original rooms have been razed and in their place sits a modernist “glass vault,” open to the wilderness of forest and lochs beyond. Rowan comments:
“It left an odd sensation of vulnerability — the way the foursquare front looked so neat and untouched, while at the back it had been ripped open, exposing all the house’s insides. Like a patient who looked well enough above their clothes but lift their shirt and you would find their wounds had been left unstitched, bleeding out.”
“Get out of there!” jumpy readers find ourselves silently urging, but Rowan stays put for reasons we won’t understand until the final act of this tragedy. And that’s when Ware’s gifts for structuring an ingenious suspense narrative really come to the fore. Because just when the story seems to be winding down, losing steam, Ware pulls out a stunner on the penultimate page that radically alters how we interpret everything that’s come before.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.
By Ruth Ware
Gallery/Scout. 352 pp. $27.99