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Author Ruth Ware is contemporary Brit with classic touch

June 11, 2018

Locked doors pervade Ruth Ware’s new novel, even if "The Death of Mrs. Westaway" is not an official "locked-door mystery."

Murder suspects are few and largely contained in a creepy old house in Cornwall. There, heroine Hal is banned from entering certain rooms and shunted off to sleep in an attic that has an exterior bolt. "What kind of person needed to stop their maids from escaping?" she wonders.

In fact, most of the places Hal stays are claustrophobic: "The room was barely a couple of meters side to side, and the barred window gave it the feeling of a cell, even with the door open. It was also achingly cold. As the air settled around her, Hal realized that she could see her breath if she huffed hard enough."

Her own tiny flat in Brighton has to be kept locked against a loan shark’s enforcer. And for income, she rents a kiosk, where she hunkers down, reading tarot cards like the one with lost souls falling from a flaming tower.

A reader might feel relieved the British author, no doubt pale and consumptive, is traveling the wide, sunny expanses of the U.S. this month.

"This tour is going to be quite the eye-opener for me," she says from her home on England’s south coast. "I’ve never been outside the New York state area."

She’s hitting some 11 states in 11 days to talk about "The Death of Mrs. Westaway" and likely will be asked about some of her previous suspense novels, which have hit the best-seller list yearly since 2015.

Ware’s biggest seller is "The Woman in Cabin 10," a locked-door mystery like Agatha Christie’s "Murder on the Orient Express" or "And Then There Were None." Suspects, often an upstairs/downstairs British cast, are confined to one location and can neither get in nor out during the time a person is murdered or disappears.

In Ware’s version, a woman on a cruise ship sees a body go overboard, but no one on the luxury vessel seems to be missing.

Ware’s first book, "In a Dark, Dark Wood" also involved an innocent woman thrust into a dangerous situation. No one was more surprised than the author when it became a best-seller, marketed in 44 countries. "I was beyond gobsmacked," she says. "I am not sure I expected it to sell abroad."

Part of the appeal for some U.S. readers must be the stories’ classic Britishness. A New York Times writer has said of Ware’s debut, "My favorite thing about that book, which centers on an amnesiac and a bachelorette party gone very wrong, was learning that the British call such gatherings ‘hen parties.’"

Of "Mrs. Westaway," reviewer Maureen Corrigan writes in the Washington Post: "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. … 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."

Ware calls her books psychological crime thrillers and says that her fourth varies a bit from her first three, including last year’s "The Lying Game." She decided her protagonist would not be completely innocent: "I decided on a character who sets out to commit a crime."

The character is the poor orphan Hal. A lawyer confidently addresses a letter to her legal name, Harriet Westaway, at her actual flat, and tells her she’s mentioned in her grandmother’s will. Meanwhile, Hal owes money, and if she doesn’t pay it back, body parts may be in for some damage.

Hal knows the wealthy woman wasn’t her mom’s mother. But she doesn’t know who her father was, and readers will probably sympathize with her plan to pose as the heir.

Ware decided Hal needed a job that shows "she’s good at playing a part."

"I thought, I’m going to make her a tarot reader, but a cynical tarot reader who tells people what they want to hear."

So Hal works in a tourist spot, a pier at the famous sea resort of Brighton, with pastel houses and a grand palace likened to the Taj Majal.

It’s "a little homage to my hometown," says Ward, who lives in nearby Lewes with her family, including children ages 9 and 12.

Interestingly, the more Ward learned about tarot readers, the less cynical she felt toward them.

"I don’t think they are all out to deceive."

She read books about the cards’ meanings and about techniques that fake mediums use, such as throwing out general statements to see what people react to. She bought her own reading in Brighton and was told "some stuff that seemed true. But clearly he could see I was a particular sort of woman in a particular stage of life."

But by the end of her investigation, Ware learned that tarot card readers would suggest different interpretations of cards, allowing the subject to consider various possibilities.

"Anything that causes people to self-reflect," she says, "I think that is psychologically useful."

An observant child, she wanted to write even when quite young. At age 7, she told her mother of her career goal, and her mom advised that writing might not be too lucrative. That she might need a Plan B.

Ware, who grew up in Sussex, moved to north London and worked jobs including waiting tables, selling books and teaching English as a foreign language. She published five fantasy novels for young adults under the name Ruth Warburton.

It was a good way into writing, she thought: "A bit freer. I felt my friends and family wouldn’t necessary read them."

She has said before that she has been a fan of classic mystery writers such as Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Arthur Conan Doyle. With "Mrs. Westaway," she wanted to pay homage also to Daphne du Marnier, who has set many novels, including "Rebecca," in Cornwall estates.

Ware’s fictional house owes a debt to West Sussex’s beautiful arts-and-crafts Standen House.

Each of her novels has been a standalone, and she has no plans now to create a series, saying she’s not too interested in police procedurals.

"The privilege of writing standalones is you can follow your own whims," she says.

Friendly and chipper on the phone, Ware is nonetheless private, disclosing little biographical information on her website. But now that her children are a bit older, and she’s a full-time writer, she is able to go on a longer book tour in America.

After her books’ success, her family was able to move from London back to the sea, which she missed, she says. And far from the dreary, wintry place described in "Mrs. Westaway," England’s Brighton is "young, hip and fashionable," she says. "It’s the gay capital of the U.K."

So she probably is not really wan and consumptive. She believes that her books’ popularity may come, in part, from her everyday heroines.

"They are ordinary people. I think people read them thinking they could be me."

Ware also keeps her books fairly short and avoids gruesome details. She says she’s not a Hannibal Lector-type of author. "I find it hard to write horrible characters," she says.

But despite all the locked doors and contained quality of her novels, she doesn’t strive to wrap up everything.

"All my books are quite open-ended. I leave the characters on the verge of something."

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