When it comes to the classic mystery, the tried and true elements will never disappoint. I’ve been a mystery reader for years, and at this point I can tell what’s going to make a good mystery, or a great one. Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway hits all the right notes. It’s clever and absorbing, it plays fair and keeps me turning those pages feverishly. It was a book I’d stay up late to read, a book I could barely put down for things like meals or work, and it’s a book I heartily recommend to anyone who’s a mystery fan or who just likes a well-written, entertaining book.
The Death of Mrs. Westaway was a very popular, bestselling book in 2018, but for some reason I didn’t pick it up myself until I offered it as an option to one of my book groups. They turned it down, but I gave myself the opportunity to read it, and I’m very glad I did.
What does a great mystery need? First, it needs a compelling main character. That was one of the problems I had with Gone Girl (which was more of a thriller than a mystery): I couldn’t stand either of the main characters and to this day I am deeply disappointed that the climax of the book wasn’t the two of them dying together in a fire (or some other catastrophe; I wasn’t trying to be limited here). By contrast, Hal (full name Harriet) Westerby, the point of view character here, is a wonderful person to spend time with. She’s young enough to do stupid things but old enough to realize shortly afterwards how stupid they were. She was brought up by an adored mother who supported the two of them by telling fortunes and reading Tarot cards on the seafront in Brighton, England. When her mother dies in a car accident, Hal is thrown into an even more difficult situation as she tries to take over her mother’s role. She foolishly borrows money from a loan shark, and then discovers she’s never going to be able to pay it back. Now the loan shark is interested in collecting his money either in cash or by damaging her seriously. Hal’s brave but not stupid; she needs a place to get away and she needs money to solve her problems, at least for the time being. When she gets a letter from a lawyer telling her she’s named in the will of her grandmother, Mrs. Westaway, she knows it’s got to be a mistake. Both her maternal grandparents are dead, and she never knew who her father was, so this couldn’t be his parents. Still, she’s got a lot of skills cold-reading people who come to her for tarot readings, and she’s desperate, so she decides to go to this funeral and whatever happens afterward, in the hope she might be able to defraud these rich people long enough to get something for herself.
The next thing a good mystery needs is a twisty plot, and an author who plays fair, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway has both those things. In fact, I would argue that a great mystery needs several questions the main character and the reader are trying to solve, and that all those questions need to twine around each other so that solving one brings you closer to understanding another. Here we have several sets of questions: is Hal going to get away with pretending to be this Harriet Westaway? Are her newfound “relatives”, or the lawyer, or the sinister housekeeper, going to figure her out? Was there really a connection between her mother and this family, and if so, what was it? What’s the connection between the writer of the diary entries that intercut the main narrative and Hal’s story? What really happened to the missing Westaway sister? Why did Mrs. Westaway set up her will the way she did? All these are compelling questions that keep you reading, and all of these get answered by the end, in satisfying ways (I don’t have to tell you how annoying it is when an author pulls a solution out of thin air, and doesn’t bother to give you the clues which would have enabled you to guess at if for yourself).
Another mark of an excellent mystery is good secondary characters. You can have mysteries where the bad people are fairly obvious, but it’s much more fun to read when any of the characters could be the villains. Here we have a great cast of family members, all of whom have their quirks, most of whom (at least in the generation older than Hal’s) could be hiding something significant and dangerous, and each of whom acts, at one time or another, as if he’s guilty as sin. Each of them also has moments of great compassion and even charm, and you’re as puzzled as Hal in trying to decide which, if any, of them is trying to kill her and why. And that’s not even mentioning the sinister Mrs. Warren, the housekeeper, who would fit well in Rebecca, or the late Mrs. Westaway herself, who is revealed as a truly horrible human being (which raises the question of why she set up her will the way she did, and makes it more interesting yet). As the plot develops and Hal spends more time with her supposed family, she begins to wonder about her mother as well, even though she would have said, before this, that she knew her mother very well, and indeed it turns out her late mother had some secrets of her own which Hal would have been better off knowing.
The setting, the old house where the Westaways grew up, a once beautiful and majestic building that is now falling into ruin, surrounded by woods and grounds leading to a dark and mysterious lake, is exactly right, the sort of place where dark secrets would be kept for generations, and all kinds of gothic things might happen.
If you love mysteries and want to read one that’s done right, or if you want a good, suspenseful read with great characters and enough surprises to keep even the most jaded reader interested, then check out The Death of Mrs. Westaway, but make sure you give yourself plenty of time, because you’re not going to want to put it down till you’ve devoured it whole.