A New York Public Library Best Book of 2019
From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, and The Lying Game comes Ruth Ware’s fourth novel, “her best yet” (Library Journal, starred review).
On a day that begins like any other, Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but also that the cold-reading skills she’s honed as a tarot card reader might help her claim the money.
Soon, Hal finds herself at the funeral of the deceased…where it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it.
Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, this is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.
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The Death of Mrs. Westaway
The girl leaned, rather than walked, into the wind, clutching the damp package of fish and chips grimly under one arm even as the gale plucked at the paper, trying to unravel the parcel and send the contents skittering away down the seafront for the seagulls to claim.
As she crossed the road her hand closed over the crumpled note in her pocket, and she glanced over her shoulder, checking the long dark stretch of pavement behind her for a shadowy figure, but there was no one there. No one she could see, anyway.
It was rare for the seafront to be completely deserted. The bars and clubs were open long into the night, spilling drunk locals and tourists onto the pebbled beach right through until dawn. But tonight, even the most hardened partygoers had decided against venturing out, and now, at 9:55 p.m. on a wet Tuesday, Hal had the promenade to herself, the flashing lights of the pier the only sign of life, apart from the gulls wheeling and crying over the dark restless waters of the channel.
Hal’s short black hair blew in her eyes, her glasses were misted, and her lips were chapped with salt from the sea wind. But she hitched the parcel tighter under her arm and turned off the seafront into one of the narrow residential streets of tall white houses, where the wind dropped with a suddenness that made her stagger and almost trip. The rain didn’t let up. In fact, away from the wind it seemed to drizzle more steadily, if anything, as she turned again into Marine View Villas.
The name was a lie. There were no villas, only a slightly shabby little row of terraced houses, their paint peeling from constant exposure to the salty air. And there was no view—not of the sea or anywhere else. Maybe there had been once, when the houses were built. But since then taller, grander buildings had gone up, closer to the sea, and any view the windows of Marine View Villas might once have had was reduced to brick walls and slate roofs, even from Hal’s attic flat. Now the only benefit to living up three flights of narrow, rickety stairs was not having to listen to neighbors stomping about above your head.
Tonight, though, the neighbors seemed to be out—and had been for some time, judging by the way the door stuck on the clump of junk mail in the hall. Hal had to shove hard, until it gave and she stumbled into the chilly darkness, groping for the automatic timer switch that governed the lights. Nothing happened. Either a fuse had blown, or the bulb had burned out.
She scooped up the junk mail, doing her best in the dim light filtering in from the street to pick out the letters for the other tenants, and then began the climb up to her own attic flat.
There were no windows on the stairwell, and once she was past the first flight, it was almost pitch-black. But Hal knew the steps by heart, from the broken board on the landing to the loose piece of carpet that had come untacked on the last flight, and she plodded wearily upwards, thinking about supper and bed. She wasn’t even sure if she was hungry anymore, but the fish and chips had cost £5.50, and judging by the number of bills she was carrying, that was £5.50 she couldn’t afford to waste.
On the top landing she ducked her head to avoid the drip from the skylight, opened the door, and then at last, she was home.
The flat was small, just a bedroom opening off a kind of wide hallway that did duty as both kitchen and living room, and everything else. It was also shabby, with peeling paint and worn carpet, and wooden windows that groaned and rattled when the wind came off the sea. But it had been Hal’s home for all of her twenty-one years, and no matter how cold and tired she was, her heart never failed to lift, just a little bit, when she walked through the door.
In the doorway, she paused to wipe the salt spray off her glasses, polishing them on the ragged knee of her jeans, before dropping the paper of fish and chips on the coffee table.
It was very cold, and she shivered as she knelt in front of the gas fire, clicking the knob until it flared, and the warmth began to come back into her raw red hands. Then she unrolled the damp, rain-spattered paper packet, inhaling as the sharp smell of salt and vinegar filled the little room.
Spearing a limp, warm chip with the wooden fork, she began to sort through the mail, sifting out takeout fliers for recycling and putting the bills into a pile. The chips were salty and sharp and the battered fish still hot, but Hal found a slightly sick feeling was growing in the pit of her stomach as the stack of bills grew higher. It wasn’t so much the size of the pile but the number marked FINAL DEMAND that worried her, and she pushed the fish aside, feeling suddenly nauseated.
She had to pay the rent—that was nonnegotiable. And the electricity was high on the list too. Without a fridge or lights, the little flat was barely habitable. The gas . . . well it was November. Life without heating would be uncomfortable, but she’d survive.
But the one that really made her stomach turn over was different from the official bills. It was a cheap envelope, obviously hand-delivered, and all it said on the front, in ballpoint letters, was “Harriet Westerway, top flat.”
There was no sender’s address, but Hal didn’t need one. She had a horrible feeling that she knew who it was from.
Hal swallowed a chip that seemed to be stuck in her throat, and she pushed the envelope to the bottom of the pile of bills, giving way to the overwhelming impulse to bury her head in the sand. She wished passionately that she could hand the whole problem over to someone older and wiser and stronger to deal with.
But there was no one. Not anymore. And besides, there was a tough, stubborn core of courage in Hal. Small, skinny, pale, and young she might be—but she was not the child people routinely assumed. She had not been that child for more than three years.
It was that core that made her pick the envelope back up and, biting her lip, tear through the flap.
Inside there was just one sheet of paper, with only a couple of sentences typed on it.
Sorry to have missed you. We would like to discuss you’re financal situation. We will call again.
Hal’s stomach flipped and she felt in her pocket for the piece of paper that had turned up at her work this afternoon. They were identical, save for the crumples and a splash of tea that she had spilled over the first one when she opened it.
The message on them was not news to Hal. She had been ignoring calls and texts to that effect for months.
It was the message behind the notes that made her hands shake as she placed them carefully on the coffee table, side by side.
Hal was used to reading between the lines, deciphering the importance of what people didn’t say, as much as what they did. It was her job, in a way. But the unspoken words here required no decoding at all.
They said, We know where you work.
We know where you live.
And we will come back.
• • •
THE REST OF THE MAIL was just junk and Hal dumped it into the recycling before sitting wearily on the sofa. For a moment she let her head rest in her hands—trying not to think about her precarious bank balance, hearing her mother’s voice in her ear as if she were standing behind her, lecturing her about her A-level revision. Hal, I know you’re stressed, but you’ve got to eat something! You’re too skinny!
I know, she answered, inside her head. It was always that way when she was worried or anxious—her appetite was the first thing to go. But she couldn’t afford to get ill. If she couldn’t work, she wouldn’t get paid. And more to the point, she could not afford to waste a meal, even one that was damp around the edges, and getting cold.
Ignoring the ache in her throat, she forced herself to pick up another chip. But it was only halfway to her mouth when something in the recycling bin caught her eye. Something that should not have been there. A letter in a stiff white envelope, addressed by hand, and stuffed into the bin along with the takeout menus.
Hal put the chip in her mouth, licked the salt off her fingers, and then leaned across to the bin to pick it out of the mess of old papers and soup tins.
Miss Harriet Westaway, it said. Flat 3c, Marine View Villas, Brighton. The address was only slightly stained with the grease from Hal’s fingers and the mess from the bin.
She must have shoved it in there by mistake with the empty envelopes. Well, at least this one couldn’t be a bill. It looked more like a wedding invitation—though that seemed unlikely. Hal couldn’t think of anyone who would be getting married.
She shoved her thumb in the gap at the side of the envelope and ripped it open.
The piece of paper she pulled out wasn’t an invitation. It was a letter, written on heavy, expensive paper, with the name of a solicitor’s firm at the top. For a minute Hal’s stomach seemed to fall away, as a landscape of terrifying possibilities opened up before her. Was someone suing her for something she’d said in a reading? Or—oh God—the tenancy on the flat. Mr. Khan, the landlord, was in his seventies and had sold all of the other flats in the house, one by one. He had held on to Hal’s mainly out of pity for her and affection for her mother, she was fairly sure, but that stay of execution could not last forever. One day he would need the money for a care home, or his diabetes would get the better of him and his children would have to sell. It didn’t matter that the walls were peeling with damp, and the electrics shorted if you ran a hair dryer at the same time as the toaster. It was home—the only home she’d ever known. And if he kicked her out, the chances of finding another place at this rate were not just slim, they were nil.
Or was it . . . but no. There was no way he would have gone to a solicitor.
Her fingers were trembling as she unfolded the page, but when her eyes flicked to the contact details beneath the signature, she realized, with a surge of relief, that it wasn’t a Brighton firm. The address was in Penzance, in Cornwall.
Nothing to do with the flat—thank God. And vanishingly unlikely to be a disgruntled client, so far from home. In fact, she didn’t know anyone in Penzance at all.
Swallowing another chip, she spread the letter out on the coffee table, pushed her glasses up her nose, and began to read.
Dear Miss Westaway,
I am writing at the instruction of my client, your grandmother, Hester Mary Westaway of Trepassen House, St Piran.
Mrs Westaway passed away on 22nd November, at her home. I appreciate that this news may well come as a shock to you; please accept my sincere condolences on your loss.
As Mrs Westaway’s solicitor and executor, it is my duty to contact beneficiaries under her will. Because of the substantial size of the estate, probate will need to be applied for and the estate assessed for inheritance tax liabilities, and the process of disbursement cannot begin until this has taken place. However if, in the meantime, you could provide me with copies of two documents confirming your identity and address (a list of acceptable forms of ID is attached), that will enable me to begin the necessary paperwork.
In accordance with the wishes of your late grandmother, I am also instructed to inform beneficiaries of the details of her funeral. This is being held at 4 p.m. on 1st December at St Piran’s Church, St Piran. As local accommodation is very limited, family members are invited to stay at Trepassen House, where a wake will also be held.
Please write to your late grandmother’s housekeeper Mrs Ada Warren if you would like to avail yourself of the offer of accommodation, and she will ensure a room is opened up for you.
Please accept once again my condolences, and the assurance of my very best attentions in this matter.
Treswick, Nantes and Dean
A chip fell from Hal’s fingers onto her lap, but she did not stir. She only sat, reading and rereading the short letter, and then turning to the accepted-forms-of-identification document, as if that would elucidate matters.
Substantial estate . . . beneficiaries of the will . . . Hal’s stomach rumbled, and she picked up the chip and ate it almost absently, trying to make sense of the words in front of her.
Because it didn’t make sense. Not one bit. Hal’s grandparents had been dead for more than twenty years.
Reading Group Guide
This readers group guide for The Death of Mrs. Westaway includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Ruth Ware. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Twenty-one-year-old Hal has been down on her luck since her mother’s death two years ago. With a loan shark and his cronies beating on her door and physically threatening her, Hal is struggling to eke out a living at the tarot-reading booth she took over from her mother on Brighton’s West Pier.
But on a day that begins like any other, Hal receives a glimmer of hope in the form of a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but that the cold-reading skills she’s honed as a tarot reader might help her claim the money anyway.
Soon, Hal finds herself at the funeral of the deceased . . . where it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Hal learned tarot, her eventual trade as an adult, from her mother at a young age. What else did Hal inherit from her mother? How does Hal’s understanding of her inheritance, physical and otherwise, change over the course of the novel?
2. How does the unknown identity of the writer of the diaries from Trepassen affect your understanding of the events? Did you guess at the identity before it was revealed?
3. How does the solicitor, Mr. Treswick, change the outcome for Hal and the Westaway family? Did he do his due diligence in finding and vetting Hal? Do you think Hal is glad to have been found, in the end?
4. How did you react to Hal’s ultimate decision to attend the funeral? What do you think her true motivation was? What would you have done in her shoes?
5. Hal is skilled at stepping into different roles—she plays Madame Margarida for her clients, she plays the regretful granddaughter for the funeral. What does this skill say about Hal’s character?
6. The interplay of skepticism and superstition is as present throughout The Death of Mrs. Westaway as the swarms of magpies at Trepassen. How does this tug-of-war between skepticism and superstition affect each of the characters? Would things have turned out differently if Hal believed in fortunes and fate?
7. “You should never have come back here,” Mrs. Warren attempts to warn Hal (p. 219). Can Hal trust Mrs. Warren? Can she trust Mitzi, or any of the other Westaways? Why or why not?
8. Hal plays the mouse, but feels she is more the rat. Which is she really? How do the events at Trepassen change Hal’s understanding of herself and her own identity?
9. Who is the real villain of The Death of Mrs. Westaway? Why? Does that change throughout the course of the book?
10. The house at Trepassen, cavernous and cold and rundown, almost takes on a life of its own. How much of that was due to the mark Mrs. Westaway left on the house? What sort of home environment did Mrs. Westaway create for her children? How does Mrs. Warren perpetuate that?
11. Abel, Harding, Ezra—and even Mrs. Warren—swear that Ezra was the favorite. How does that fact play out in the end? Was Mrs. Westaway protecting Ezra?
12. Were you surprised by the revelation between Ezra and Hal, or by the final revelation Hal discovers in the study and Mrs. Warren’s wing? Why or why not?
13. Does Hal get what she deserves in the end? What does she gain? What does she learn? At what cost?
14. What do you think Mrs. Westaway’s motive was in leaving her will as she did? How much do you think she knew about Hal before her death? Why or why not?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Author A. J. Finn said, “The Death of Mrs. Westaway, [Ruth Ware’s] latest, is also her best.” If you haven’t read Ware’s other novels, go back and read In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, or The Lying Game and discuss with your book club. Which book is your favorite? How are they similar and different from one another?
2. Explore the world of tarot and fortune reading. Find a local tarot reader for a visit with your book club, or learn the basics online from Tarot.com or this article on Vogue.com: https://www.vogue.com/article/tarot-101-beginner-guide-how-to-small-spells. You might even find a book on tarot reading at your local library or bookstore.
3. The expansive and dilapidated house at Trepassen, the colorful cast of characters, and the page-turning suspense of The Death of Mrs. Westaway seem like a perfect fit for the big screen. Who would you cast as Hal in the film version? What about Ezra, Abel, Harding, and Mrs. Warren? Discuss with your book club.
4. Learn more about Ruth Ware by visiting her website at http://www.ruthware.com, or following her on Twitter @RuthWareWriter or at Facebook.com/RuthWareWriter.
A Conversation with Ruth Ware
The Death of Mrs. Westaway has it all: family secrets, an old Gothic manor, thrilling plot lines, page-turning pacing, flawed characters in a deeply human way. What was the genesis for this book? Did you start with a specific character, scene, or idea?
I think the core of this book was the fact that I had written three novels about people who were drawn into crimes or deceptions through no fault of their own—they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or witnessed something they shouldn't have. With The Death of Mrs. Westaway, I wanted to try something quite different and write a character who sets out to commit a crime. Because I knew that I wanted Hal to be a con artist, I decided to give her a career suited to deceiving people—so I made her a tarot reader, but a cynical one who doesn’t believe in the power of the cards but instead uses her skills and intuition to claim a knowledge she doesn't have.
The expansive estate and grand manor house at Trepassen, even in their disrepair, are quite impressive, and crucial to the story line. Is Trepassen based on a real place?
Not exactly—it’s very loosely based on a real house in Sussex, near where I live, called Standen House, which is a very beautiful arts and crafts house. Standen House is in much better repair than Trepassen, although largely unaltered since the 1930s, but it has a slightly haunted, melancholy air, as it was built for a large, loving family of seven children, who gradually all died or moved away, leaving the house in the custody of the youngest daughter, who had not married. She left it to the National Trust in her will and it’s now open to the public, still furnished with the family’s possessions, as if they had simply popped out for a country walk one day.
The long tiled corridors, the echoing rooms, and the orangery at Trepassen are all inspired by counterparts at Standen, and walking around the place I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to be the one remaining sibling living there alone, growing older and frailer, with the house falling into disrepair around her.
But the Cornish setting owes a heavy debt to the novels of Daphne du Maurier—there is definitely a large pinch of Manderley in the mix.
The sibling—and pseudo-sibling, in the case of Maud and Maggie—dynamics greatly affect the events of the novel. Were you inspired by any real-life siblings or relationships?
It's funny because out of all the siblings in the book, I think the closest sibling relationship is Maggie and Maud, who as you mentioned aren't really sisters at all. But I am very close to my sister and I definitely relate to the unconditional loyalty that Maggie and Maud develop for each other.
I have no idea where the brothers came from, though—they feel very real to me, and I love their complicated mix of affection and exasperation for one another, but I’ve no idea what inspired that. Sometimes my imagination is a mystery even to me.
What kind of research did you do for this book? Did you already have experience with tarot, or is that something you researched specifically?
Believe it or not, I knew almost nothing about tarot and had never had a reading, though I have always loved the look of the cards and been a little fascinated by their imagery. It was really fun researching all that—I bought books about tarot reading and symbolism and had great fun picking and choosing how all the readings in the book would pan out. But of course, as I mentioned, Hal is a cynical tarot reader who doesn’t actually believe the cards have any mystical power and uses her powers of observation for slightly less-than-moral ends, so the other strand of research I did was into fake mediums and psychics, which was equally fascinating. I read about “cold reading” techniques, where the so-called psychic genuinely knows nothing beforehand about their mark but simply picks up information from their reactions and appearance, and “hot reading,” where the person conducting the reading researches their mark beforehand to give the appearance of insight. I also went and had a tarot reading myself—I did this after conducting all my research so it was fascinating to see some of the things I had researched play out in the reading.
I also picked up some truly horrifying stories of people taken in by fake psychics. They were told to me in confidence so I probably can’t share them here—but suffice it to say, I would be very, very careful if anyone contacts you out of the blue.
Mrs. Westaway herself is a bit of a shadowy figure. We only get to know her through the stories and recollections of others, and fleeting mentions in Maggie’s diary. Why did you choose to keep her mostly off the page?
Partly it was practicality—the story is about Hal’s journey of discovery, not Maggie’s experiences at Trepassen, so I didn’t want to include too much from the diary, and that meant limiting the scenes with Mrs. Westaway. Also many of the climactic scenes that I would have liked to feature were impossible to include in the diary. But partly I loved the idea of a character like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, who is a hugely looming, influential presence in the novel but who we only see through the recollection of others. I really enjoy books where a pivotal character exists mainly off the page, and we see different, disorted flickers through the lens of different observers.
Like in The Lying Game, the narrative in The Death of Mrs. Westaway alternates Hal’s story in the present day and the diary entries from that fateful year—1994—at Trepassen. What draws you to weave the past into the present? What does this allow you to do with the narrative?
Hmm . . . I don’t know, this is a good question! I guess one answer is that unlike some crime writers, I’m not actually very interested in the crime itself—the gun, the body, the poison, or whatever. What matters to me is not so much the pebble that is thrown into the pond but the ripples that emanate from that pebble and the effect they have on other people. I suppose by putting the crime in the past, it enables the effect of those ripples to be more pronounced and allows me to concentrate on that part of the narrative.
I also love writing about secrets—and the thing about secrets is that the longer you keep them, the bigger they become.
How was writing The Death of Mrs. Westaway different from writing In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, and The Lying Game? How has your writing evolved with each book?
I’m not honestly sure, is the answer! This is probably something that the writer is worst-placed to comment on, because we are too close to the picture to see. I think The Death of Mrs. Westaway is probably darker and more gothic than my earlier books, which are a bit more fast-paced and action-packed. But the theme of female friendship and loyalty is a constant.
The Death of Mrs. Westaway is chock-full of plot twists and turns and red herrings that keep the reader guessing until the very end—do you outline your books to keep that all straight, or does it come to you as you go? How do you organize the plot for your novels?
I generally don't outline—or not very much. I have an idea of the structure in my head and sometimes if my editors ask me to I will jot that down, but it's not usually very extensive—a page or two at most. I also have a couple of paragraphs of notes at the end of the manuscript with jotted-down notes for things that I think should happen, or stuff that I need to go back and fix (or in the case of Mrs. Westaway, dates of birth and relative ages of all the characters, since that was important to the plot), but in general I hold 90 percent of the book in my head. I am always in awe of writers who have complicated charts with time lines and Post-it notes and index cards. I feel like I’m winging it most of the time!
It must be exhausting to publish a new book every year! How do you stay balanced with your writing and touring schedule? Do you take any time off between books, or is it right back to the grindstone?
I usually jump right back in—as soon as I finish one book, I begin the next (often the very next day). Not so much out of a sense of duty, although I do have contracts and deadlines I need to meet, but more because I always get a sense of huge deflation when a book comes out, and I find the best way to combat that is having another one on the boil all ready to go. That said, this book is the first time I didn’t do that. I was traveling and touring so much that it was all I could do to complete the edits on Mrs. Westaway; I just didn’t have time to begin a new book. Mostly though, the two fit pretty well together—I get long stretches of time when I can hunker down in my writing cave (it’s not a cave, I should probably make that clear) and then I get to break for fresh air and remember why I do it all.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you are a fan of Agatha Christie novels. What else do you like to read? Do you read other novels while working on your own?
I love Christie, but actually the biggest influence on this book were two other writers: Daphne du Maurier (who I’ve already mentioned) and Josephine Tey—anyone who has read her novel Brat Farrar will probably see some common themes and elements with The Death of Mrs. Westaway. Plus Hal is no Tom Ripley, but I was definitely thinking about Patricia Highsmith’s mesmerising con-man antihero when I was coming up with her character.
I love to read anything and everything, and I do read while working on my own books, but I find I can’t read crime or psychological thrillers, at least not while I’m in the early stages of the idea. It’s partly to do with finding the voice of my character—I have to learn to be silent for a little while, to listen to what my narrator is trying to say to me, and it’s hard to do that while you’re immersed in someone else’s character. But it’s also a practical issue—if I’m already committed to a story, I don’t want to find out that someone else is writing on the same subject or has used the same twist. If I’m halfway through the book it’s too late to turn back, so I would rather simply not know! For that reason, you’ll often find me re-reading old favorites that I know backward already, or wallowing in nonfiction or comedy or something completely unrelated. I just finished a volume of David Sedaris’s essays, which is basically a perfect counterpart to writing crime.