An excellent gothic mystery, reminiscent of Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier.
I’ve never read anything by Ruth Ware before so this was a new venture for me. Another member of our crime fiction book group spoke highly of one of her books, so I thought I’d give her a try and chose The Death of Mrs Westaway, which was published in 2018.
Ruth Ware is a British author who specialises in dark, creepy thrillers, sometimes with supernatural overtones.
Beginning in Brighton
This novel is a gothic mystery, reminiscent of Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier. A young woman, Hal Westaway, lives alone in Brighton after the hit-and-run death of her mother. They have always been alone; Hal’s father is unknown. Now Hal makes her living as a tarot card reader and fortune teller on Brighton Pier, a job she has inherited from her late mother. She is living very close to the breadline. In fact, she has fallen into the clutches of some very nasty money lenders.
Into this sad and depressing existence comes a letter from a solicitor telling her that she is co-heir to her grandmother, Mrs Westaway, and should present herself at the Westaway family’s stately home in Cornwall.
So far so good. But Hal knows it’s all a mistake, because there’s no way Mrs Westaway could have been her grandmother, in spite of the name. She knows who her long-dead grandparents were, and they weren’t Westaways. Nonetheless she decides to go and try to blag her way through it in the hope of a small legacy, which would help her with her money troubles and which she thinks the family can easily spare.
The late Mrs Westaway, who was a real tartar, had three sons, and a daughter who had disappeared sometime in the past. Hal arrives and meets her ‘family’ – uncles, aunt, cousins and a severely sinister, Mrs Danvers-like housekeeper. She finds they are all (apart from the housekeeper) kind, welcoming and thrilled to have the daughter of their long-lost sister back.
When Hal has a severe attack of conscience, she goes back to Brighton to get some perspective and then returns and confesses all. To her astonishment she finds all her ‘relatives’ are still welcoming and want to know her better.
Parallel with this straightforward story runs a tale told in the form of a diary kept by a cousin, Maggie. Twenty years ago she’d lived at the house alongside the family (including Maud, the lost daughter) and several schoolfriends of the three boys. Maggie was pregnant by one of the young men, although we don’t know which one, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the unborn baby is probably Hal.
And so, the mystery begins. What happened to Maggie? Was she Hal’s mother? Who was the father? And where is Maud? As Hal begins to try and work out what happened all those years ago, someone close is equally determined that the past should not be raked up.
I won’t spoil things by revealing more of the story. I’ll only say this was a really enjoyable, old-fashioned mystery, quite gothic and with a surprising twist in the ending. It’s very atmospheric with the old, decrepit house full of dust, shadows and cobwebs and with ‘Mrs Danvers’ lurking. Everything is very well described and it makes quite a chilling read. And although the characters of the uncles and cousins are a little sketchy they felt believable.
Hal herself is vividly described as a young woman, struggling to survive and with some surprising signs of integrity, especially in her reading of the cards. Throughout the book there are interesting and quite moving descriptions of how she makes her living, her love of the Tarot cards and how she uses her knowledge of human nature to read them – never giving a definitive or direct prediction, merely suggesting how the cards might propose several different outcomes. I found it fascinating.
I really liked this book and give it 4-Stars.
Review by: Freyja