A classic never goes out of style. Consider the confident simplicity of the dry martini, the Edison lightbulb and Meghan Markle’s wedding dress. Now, add to that list Ruth Ware’s new novel, “The Death of Mrs. Westaway.” Here’s a suspense tale so old-fashioned, I’m hard-pressed to recall an element of it that doesn’t derive straight from the “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night” playbook.
Among other Gothic delights, there’s a crumbling old mansion, a disputed inheritance, an orphaned heroine and a grim housekeeper whose signature supper dish is gristle stew. “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” is a perfectly executed suspense tale very much in the mode of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” Somehow, Ware takes all these tarnished suspense tropes, gives them a brisk working-over with a polishing cloth and recovers the ageless beauty of the traditional.
The novel opens on, well, a dark and stormy night as a lone young woman scurries her way homeward along a deserted seaside promenade. Harriet “Hal” Westaway is 21 years old. She never knew her father’s identity, and ever since the hit-and-run death of her mother three years ago, Hal has been eking out a living reading tarot cards in a seedy resort town on the English Channel. When she arrives in her chilly flat, Hal tears open her damp meal of takeout fish and chips and surveys the overdue notices that have arrived in that day’s mail. Two letters stand out in the pile: One is a threat from a loan shark she naively borrowed money from months ago. The other is a missive on heavy stationery from a solicitor’s firm in Cornwall, informing Hal of the death of her maternal grandmother and summoning Hal to a reading of the will. The tantalizing phrase “substantial size of the estate” catches Hal’s eye. The only problem is, Hal knows that her mother’s mother died decades ago; the lawyer must have her confused with another Harriet Westaway.
Hal is a person of integrity, but she’s also desperate. That sadistic loan shark has a reputation for merrily cutting deadbeat borrowers to ribbons. Over the next day, Hal mulls over her options and bets on putting to use a skill her mother taught her: the art of being a “cold reader.” Like Sherlock Holmes, Hal can simply glance at the clients who turn up at her kiosk in the amusement arcade and suss out key personal details: “Hal could guess their age, their status; she noticed the smart but worn shoes that showed a downward change in fortune or the recently bought designer handbag that indicated the reverse. In the dim light of her booth, she could still see the white line of a recently removed wedding ring, or the shaky hands of someone missing their morning drink.”
Equipped only with this talent, Hal decides to board a train for Cornwall (where “Rebecca” was set) and pass herself off as the missing Westaway granddaughter. If she’s exposed as a fraud, she’ll be packed off to prison, so Hal steels herself to pull off the ultimate con game.
It’s pouring buckets when Hal arrives at the church where the funeral is being held outside Penzance. Fans of Ware’s most recent bestsellers, “The Woman in Cabin 10” and “The Lying Game,” will recognize her predilection for making nature’s elements a felt presence in her stories; here, extreme weather — in the form of “lashing rain,” fierce gales, ice and a freak blizzard — plays a malevolent role. Hal bluffs her way through her first graveside encounter with her “uncles” — the Westaway adult children and their partners. Then she’s driven to the family manse, Trepassen House, a gloomy pile sans central heating that’s encircled by menacing magpies straight out of “The Birds.” The aforementioned housekeeper, Mrs. Warren, grudgingly shows Hal her bedroom, a bare chamber in the attic with bars on the tiny window and, as she will discover, the words “HELP ME” scratched into the glass. Our reluctant con artist, Hal, slowly begins to suspect that maybe she’s the one who’s been conned into a fatal trap.
“The Death of Mrs. Westaway” is superb. In addition to its brooding atmosphere and labyrinthine mistaken-identity plot, the novel also gives us a heroine of real depth in Hal. As Ware vividly depicts, Hal is hemmed in by her poverty as much as she is by those iron bars on the attic window. Hal can’t flee Trepassen House — she has enough money only for a one-way ticket . (She rashly gambled on the chance that she would get some inheritance money right away.) So Hal resolves to settle in. I predict lovers of first-class suspense will also want to burrow into their version of Hal’s darkened chamber, shut out the delights of summer and read until the stunning endgame here is played out.
Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Ruth Ware.
Gallery/Scout. 384 pp. $26.99