Sunday 15 September 2019

The Turn of the Key: Family secrets, a nanny in peril, and a haunted pile in the Highlands

Crime The Turn of the Key Ruth Ware Harvill Secker, hardback, 340 pages, €14.99

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

With its title, Ruth Ware's fifth crime novel positions itself squarely in the tradition of classic psychological horror stories such as Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, albeit with a modern twist: as per the backpage bumpf, this is "a ghost story for the 21st century".

The Turn of the Key marks a slight departure from Ware's previous work, in that there are - or at least may be - supernatural elements at play. Otherwise, it's familiar fare for fans of the bestselling English author (of whom there are many: Ware has sold millions of books, and three so far have been optioned for the screen).

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An archetypal mystery set-up: in this case, an old house in the Scottish Highlands, miles from anywhere. A young woman in potential peril. Family secrets. More than one hidden past. A greater emphasis on psychological drama and malevolent mood than fast-moving narrative.

In short, Ware's books are more about undercurrent than plot mechanics. Not a lot happens across the 340 pages of The Turn of the Key, ultimately, but what does happen is rendered with some skill and a good deal of brooding atmosphere. We begin with the narrator, Rowan Caine, writing to a superstar lawyer called Wrexham from her prison cell in Scotland. She's on remand for murder; a child in her care has died under murky circumstances.

Desperate for help and pleading innocence - "Every single person in here claims to be innocent," she admits, "but in my case it's true" - Rowan sets out her story in an attempt to convince Wrexham, famous for winning no-hope cases, to take on hers.

So what led her to these dire straits? A few weeks back she was a twentysomething Londoner, working in a crèche. Fed up with the job, lonely without her globetrotting flatmate, she is online one night when a job advert catches her eye.

Sandra and Bill Elincourt are a pair of "starchitects" who've relocated from the city to Heatherbrae, an old pile in rural Scotland. The place has been renovated, including very cutting-edge "smart" tech - the whole building works off an app called, with foreshadowing irony, Happy.

The Elincourts have four girls: a teenager in boarding school, two little ones and a baby. Travelling a lot for work, they need a nanny to mind the kiddies and house. Rowan applies and is hired. The pay is ridiculously good; the job seems perfect. But as we all know - especially readers of mysteries - the perfect is the enemy of the good. Rowan is about to enter something of a nightmare.

She begins work with a dive straight into the deep end: the Elincourts are off for a week, so she's in loco parentis immediately. On top of that, Bill makes a sleazy pass on the very first night.

Of the middle children, younger Ellie likes Rowan fine; older Maddie is incredibly hostile. The teenager, at least, is away.

Meanwhile, the house is difficult to manage - even turning on the shower is a challenge when you're not au fait with the complicated Happy.

And it's a creepy old place: strange noises in the night, locked doors found open, lights activating themselves, plus a dark history involving poison plants, dead children and even ghosts. Locals believe Heatherbrae is haunted; handyman Jack is sceptical, and Rowan is soon leaning on him for moral support, especially when she learns that several nannies had quit in enigmatic circumstances.

As mentioned, there's not a whole pile of plot in The Turn of the Key. What twists it contains arrive late in the day - possibly too late, for some readers, though, in fairness, it must be added that a few of them are clever and unexpected, and the ending is moving, even haunting.

The book is quite slow-moving, which would be fine if not for the fact that Rowan, as a character, doesn't feel fully believable. For an independent young urbanite, she seems very prone to panic and fright, almost hysterical at times.

And some of her decisions are implausible, bordering on flat-out stupid. I realise the author has to forward the story somehow, but there must be a more elegant solution than "have the heroine do something daft".

I also found it hard to credit that Sandra and Bill would entrust their very young kids, for a week, to a woman they'd only known for a few hours. He's obviously a creep, but she seems smart and caring; are some parents really this irresponsible?

Still, if you can overlook those elements, The Turn of the Key works fine. The publishers are selling it as "the true heir to Wilkie Collins": I wouldn't go that far, but it's easy enough to let yourself fall into the sustained mood of gloom, mystery and dread.

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