Book Scene: Modern-day haunted house thriller perfect for October

turn of the key

I hope this review finds you on a misty, rainy, dreary autumn day. That would be the perfect day to start Ruth Ware’s new book, “The Turn of the Key.” From the author of “Woman in Cabin 10” and “In a Dark, Dark Wood” comes a modern-day ghost story, reminiscent of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.”

Rowan, a young woman from London, is hired as the nanny for four children while their architect parents travel for business. Sandra and Bill Elincourt need Rowan desperately, as they have a terrible time keeping a nanny in residence, and she has reasons of her own for wanting the job so badly.

Rowan moves into paradoxical Heatherbrae in the lonely Scottish Highlands to begin her employment. From the outside it looks like a Victorian mansion and yet, upon entering, a visitor finds a fully functional smart home. Happy Home, the intrusive app that controls the house, is almost a character itself in the story and certainly lends to the eerie atmosphere. We are never quite sure about Jack Grant, the caretaker, or Jean McKenzie, the cook and cleaning lady.

And those children! Ellie is 5 years old and wants to connect with Rowan, but also wants to be led by her older sister, Maddie. Maddie is a little girl who wants so badly to be loved but is chased by her own demons. When Rowan prepares to leave after her initial interview at Heatherbrae, it’s Maddie who shyly whispers to her: “Don’t come here. It’s not safe. ... They wouldn’t like it.” Add to that a defiant, angry teenager newly home from boarding school and our cast of characters is complete.

Rowan is settling in and tending to baby Petra while trying to build relationships with Ellie and combative, manipulative Maddie when she begins to be tormented by Happy Home going berserk, footsteps in the night, possessions disappearing, a poison garden, a house history ghost story, and a long-distance helicopter mother. It all comes to a head when Rhiannon returns from boarding school with her own machinations. Can Rowan hold on until Bill and Sandra return from their work trip? Will she be one more of the short-term nannies that left Heatherbrae suddenly? Or will something even more dire occur?

“The Turn of the Key” is a suspenseful page-turner, with plot twist upon plot twist. Just when you think it has all shaken out it twists one more time, just pages from the surprising conclusion.

The theme of James’ “The Turn of the Screw” has been said to be the loss of innocence. With a nodding homage to that classic ghost story and that theme, Ruth Ware has retained the spooky elements while updating the story with today’s technological advances and modern social mores.

Everyone has secrets! October is the perfect time for a spooky ghost story, and this is a great one.

• “The Turn of the Key” by Rush Ware was published by Simon and Schuster. It retails for $27.

• Luanne Clark works for Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in this space every week.

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