doors pervade Ruth Ware’s new novel, even if "The
Death of Mrs. Westaway" is not an official
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?"
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
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.
reader might feel relieved the British author, no doubt
pale and consumptive, is traveling the wide, sunny
expanses of the U.S. this month.
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
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.
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.
Ware’s version, a woman on a cruise ship sees a body
go overboard, but no one on the luxury vessel seems to
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."
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.’"
"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
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."
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
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.
decided Hal needed a job that shows "she’s good
at playing a part."
thought, I’m going to make her a tarot reader, but a
cynical tarot reader who tells people what they want to
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.
"a little homage to my hometown," says Ward,
who lives in nearby Lewes with her family, including
children ages 9 and 12.
the more Ward learned about tarot readers, the less
cynical she felt toward them.
don’t think they are all out to deceive."
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."
by the end of her investigation, Ware learned that tarot
card readers would suggest different interpretations of
cards, allowing the subject to consider various
that causes people to self-reflect," she says,
"I think that is psychologically useful."
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.
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
was a good way into writing, she thought: "A bit
freer. I felt my friends and family wouldn’t necessary
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
fictional house owes a debt to West Sussex’s beautiful
arts-and-crafts Standen House.
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.
privilege of writing standalones is you can follow your
own whims," she says.
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.
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."
she probably is not really wan and consumptive. She
believes that her books’ popularity may come, in part,
from her everyday heroines.
are ordinary people. I think people read them thinking
they could be me."
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.
despite all the locked doors and contained quality of
her novels, she doesn’t strive to wrap up everything.
my books are quite open-ended. I leave the characters on
the verge of something."