Home » “The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware – The Imperfect Victim

“The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware – The Imperfect Victim

“The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware (Header image)

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Ruth Ware‘s career may not have started long ago, but she has so far maintained a high standard for herself, one she does her absolute best to live up to in her fifth novel, The Turn of the Key. In it, we follow the story of Rowan Caine who took up a “too good to be true” nanny job at a luxurious estate, only to end up being accused of murdering a child. From her prison cell, she writes to her lawyer, trying to unravel to complexity of all she has been through, consistently adamant she is no killer… but then who is?

Ruth Ware Weaves an Unusual Mystery

We often hear from motivational speakers, self-help coaches, and generally anyone we speak to long enough touch on the subject of opportunities in life. More often than not the conversation veers towards the best ways of taking advantage of them, how to seize the day when your moment of chance makes itself known. However, as we are about to learn in Ruth Ware‘s The Turn of the Key, there is a flip side to opportunities, as they are capable of easily reeling people into situations they are not ready to face and probably never would be.

Our story begins with the introduction of Rowan Caine who stumbles on an ad presenting an opportunity a little too good to be true. The wealthy Heatherbrae family is looking for a live-in nanny, complete with a remarkably generous salary. Being unable to pass up what feels like a calling from fate itself, Rowan sets out to the Scottish Highlands to meet the picture-perfect family to which her life will now be bound. Her first impressions leave her practically smitten, surrounded with all the omnipresent high-class luxuries one could imagine and on good terms with everyone… but of course, good things seldom last.

Unbeknownst to Rowan, what she has walked into is a nightmare, one which sees her landing in prison and awaiting trial for the murder of a child. Now confined to her prison cell, she writes to her lawyer in hopes of untangling this mystery, explaining step by step her journey in the cursed house. Though she admits her guilt in lying about her qualifications and misbehaving towards the children, she remains adamant she did not commit murder… which only begs for the question, who did? With the time of her trial fast approaching, Rowan frantically races within her own memory to sort this mess… and it just so happens she might have all the pieces to make the correct picture.

The Mastery of a Different Suspense

I don’t know how many people will agree with me here, but personally-speaking I find there is a special place in literature (and other types of media) for murder mysteries which start us after the fact as characters are trying to uncover what might have happened. Though we no longer have the tension of wondering who will die, when, or who might be next, what we do have is more time to focus on the mystery itself, and as tradition would have it, the potentially-unreliable narrator conveying their perspective.

As such, with The Turn of the Key essentially being the letter Rowan writes to her lawyer, everything takes place within her prison cell, if we are talking about the present time. The author doesn’t hide at all how the protagonist’s sojourn with the Heatherbrae turned out, and thus finds the need to create suspense in another way, and she chose to do it through the build-up to the catastrophe which lasts for the majority of the story.

In other words, we only get to the actual crime towards the end of it, and until then it’s all about the alarming strangeness and psychological pressure Rowan endured as a nanny. For me personally, the suspense came from the small and suggestive bits of information we are constantly given about the various family members.

While some of them turn out to be little more than false alarms, it becomes increasingly clear our protagonist is not surrounded by the completely harmless and perfect family she met on the first day. While we can know with certitude they don’t present a physical danger to Rowan, the question as to how deep their darkness runs always remained at the forefront of my thoughts. It’s a different, more low-key kind of suspense, and for those who are uncertain about it I think it does deserve a chance to be appreciated.

The Luxurious Nuthouse

It should be fairly obvious at this point we spend the vast majority of our time with the Heatherbrae family and have the opportunity to become fairly well-acquainted with all of its members, even the ones we would rather keep out of sight. I think the author did a commendable job in portraying each and every character, ensuring they stay distinguished enough from each other in their features, voices and plots, but not too much to the point where they stop feeling like a family. The good news is if you’re not a fan of someone in particular, they rarely overstay their welcome and you can forget about them for a little while.

Speaking of characters in The Turn of the Key, we haven’t really talked about Rowan herself at this point. For the most part she comes across as a regular, intelligent person who is simply looking to make a good buck with work which doesn’t sound too difficult. As we walk alongside her through an increasingly bizarre journey and suffer the same psychological torture she does, Rowan ends up becoming more relatable. Her reactions to the various oddities she experiences seemed to mirror my own, in line with what I believe would be common sense.

I also did enjoy the framing device of her writing a letter to her lawyer as it gives her a better angle to comment on the events she has been through… even if the idea of her writing an entire book to her lawyer rather than simply talking or recording it is quite comical.

The house itself, in my opinion, also makes a case for itself to be a considered as an actual character. At the start of The Turn of the Key, we are told about rumours of it being haunted, and from there on out one strange occurrence takes place after the next one, to the point where it feels like structure itself is out to get our Rowan.

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Ruth Ware does a fantastic job at describing each and every location, giving the rooms and hallways a life of their own, as if they were an intertwined organism. I was always a fan of authors who could successfully make objects, buildings or places into characters via their sheer presence, and so I believe this deserved a mention.

The Final Verdict

While The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware does take a different approach at building suspense for its murder mystery, in my opinion she succeeds quite well in doing so and has once again published a compelling psychological thriller. I highly recommend this to people who enjoyed the author’s previous novels, or anyone looking for a murder mystery with a bit of a different approach than what we are used to getting.

Ruth Ware (Author)

Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware is a British author specializing in psychological crime thrillers. Before turning to writing she studied at Manchester University, worked as a waitress, bookseller, a publicist, and a teacher of the English language in Paris.

Her books In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10 were on The New York Times and U.K’s Sunday Times top ten bestseller lists, in addition to which they are being produced into major motion pictures, alongside with another novel of of hers, The Lying Game.

David Ben Efraim (Page Image)

David Ben Efraim (Reviewer)

David Ben Efraim is a book reviewer living in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and co-owner of Bookwormex, as well as the Quick Book Reviews blog, along with Yakov Ben Efraim. With a love for literature reaching across all genres (except romance), he has embarked on the quest to share its wonders with the world by helping people find their way to books which truly speak to them, whether they be modern sensations or relics from a bygone era.

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