Tuesday 18 December 2018

The Death of Mrs Westaway: Cosy Cornish mystery fails to excite

Crime: The Death of Mrs Westaway, Ruth Ware, Harvill Secker, hardback, 384 pages, €15

Low-key sensation: Ruth Ware has sold two million books in three years
Low-key sensation: Ruth Ware has sold two million books in three years
The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

In a few short years, British crime writer Ruth Ware has become what we might call, a little paradoxically, a low-key sensation. Her name isn't constantly mentioned in the press, like her genre peers; her work isn't referenced by all and sundry as "that book everyone's talking about".

Yet, since her debut In a Dark, Dark Wood - published as recently as late 2015 - Ware has released a further three novels, selling two million copies and topping bestseller lists around the world. There's also two movies, plus a TV show, of her novels currently in production.

But sales don't necessarily equate to quality. So how good is Ruth Ware? Ultimately, I think, it comes down to the personal taste of the individual crime-fiction fan.

If you tend to go for the cosier end of the genre - domestic settings, slowish pace, lots of tangled family drama and secrets, with a sprinkling of plot twists arriving late on in the tale - you'll devour Ware's stuff, just as you devoured The Girl on the Train. If, like me, you prefer more of an edge, a faster pace, more incident and story, a cop/bad guy dynamic, and, especially, a better quality of writing…well, then, you'll probably be a bit bored.

The Death of Mrs Westaway concerns Harriet Westaway, known as Hal, a young woman eking out a living as a tarot-card reader in Brighton. Her mother is dead, she lives alone in a grotty flat, and some unpleasant money-lenders are out for her blood.

Then she gets a letter from a solicitor in Cornwall: her grandmother, the titular Mrs Westaway, has died and bequeathed her something in the will. The only cloud on this literally silver lining is that Hal isn't actually her granddaughter - the solicitor has made a mistake in identity.

Pushed to desperate measures, she decides to fake it, thinking of turning up and scurrying off with a few thousand quid in inheritance money. Enough to clear her debts and start afresh, getting out of Dodge with little harm done.

Things get complicated when Hal arrives at Trepassen House - cleverly, the name has multiple meanings, in English and Cornish - and discovers that she's been bequeathed the entire estate. She also meets her "uncles" Harding, Ezra and Abel, the first-named of whom is not happy at this usurper arriving out of nowhere to grab his inheritance.

Hal also meets the fearsome old battleaxe of a maid, Mrs Warren, and starts discovering rather odd things around the house: an attic room locked from the inside, the words "Help me" scratched into floorboards. And then she comes across a photo of the uncles, alongside their sister - AKA the woman whose daughter Hal is pretending to be - and, to her shock, her own mother…

How did Hal's mother know these people? What secrets lie behind her visit to Trepassen House? What secrets are the others hiding? Could Abel's boyfriend Edward be Hal's real father? And how is she going to confess that she's not related to them at all, but is rather a cuckoo in the nest?

As with her previous novels, I couldn't call The Death of Mrs Westaway bad, as such. It's not even mediocre: the story is crafted perfectly adequately, it all seems plausible enough, the set-up is intriguing.

On the other hand, though, it's often dull, it feels much too long, the prose is functional but flat, and many of the twists and turns are too predictable but at the same time don't make a lot of sense.

Most crucially, the book lacks that certain something for me, some spark of originality and wit, some essential element of magic that you get in truly great crime novels, which thrills the reader.

Similar to The Girl on the Train et al, this feels more like it should have been a one-hour TV drama. Something in the vein of Midsomer Murders or A Touch of Frost: snug and familiar, with well-loved characters, high production values and the cream of British television acting.

And there's absolutely nothing wrong with those shows. But as a 380-plus-page novel, there just isn't enough in The Death of Mrs Westaway to sustain much interest.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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