The Death of Mrs. Westaway
Although it is possible that a better suspense novel may be published in 2018, it is not probable. The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware is the standard by which other suspense novels must be judged, and frankly it’s doubtful any forthcoming books can approach, much less exceed, that standard.
As in her previous novels, Ware introduces a heroine who is threatened either by financial ruin or by a nebulous danger of some sort. In the case of Harriet Westaway it is both.
“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.”
A 21-year-old orphan with no close friends, Harriet, called “Hal” by her deceased mother, claws out a meager living by doing readings, mostly using tarot cards, on Brighton’s famous promenade. But Hal is falling deeper in debt, and not only to her landlord or the utility companies.
The personal threat comes in a cheap envelope with no return address. “Sorry to have missed you. We would like to discuss your financial situation. We will call again.”
Hal makes her living by “reading between the lines, deciphering the importance of what people didn’t say, as much as what they did.”
It doesn’t take much thought to read between the lines in this note. “They said, We know where you work. We know where you live. And we will come back.”
Hal is sick with fear. It was her own choice that landed her in this fix, but she sees no way out. The mysterious Mr. Smith was so understanding and kind when Hal asked him for a loan. But the five hundred pounds that she borrowed, and that she paid back at the rate of two thousand pounds, seems now to have multiplied into three thousand pounds due in one week. Or else she will pay in broken bones.
Then she receives the letter from Solicitor Treswick Informing her that Harriet Westaway is a beneficiary in her grandmother’s will. Mrs. Hester Mary Westaway of Trepassen House, St. Piran, has passed away. “Because of the substantial size of the estate, probate will need to be applied for . . . if, in the meantime, you could provide me with copies of two documents confirming your identity and address . . .”
“Substantial size of the estate . . .” Hal is shocked and disbelieving. A small inheritance would pay all her bills, including to the loan shark, Mr. Smith, and perhaps provide a cushion against future debt.
There is a problem, though. Hal’s grandparents have been dead for 20 years, and her grandmother’s name had not been Hester Mary Westaway, but Marion.
Mr. Treswick has the wrong Harriet Westaway.
Throughout the day Hal is oh so tempted, but with the visit from Mr. Smith’s assistant with his violent threats, the temptation becomes reality. Hal takes the train to Piran and the funeral of Hester Mary Westaway.
Her arrival causes an uproar. Mrs. Westaway’s oldest son, Harding, is suspicious and outraged that the inheritance he understood was to be his, instead goes to an interloper, the daughter of their sister, Maud, who disappeared over 21 years ago. None of her brothers, Harding, Abel, and Ezra knew Maud was pregnant when she vanished.
An attic bedroom is opened for Harriet by the housekeeper, elderly Mrs. Warren, whose welcome and kindly nature will freeze the blood in a vampire’s veins. And the bedroom. It is small, with in iron bedstead, bare hardwood floor, ill-fitting and barred window, no radiator, only a small fireplace barely larger than a breadbox.
The room was not a nursery, so why are there bars on the only window? And who scratched “Help Me” on the window glass? The bars were not to keep anyone out, but to keep someone in, the someone who scratched a plea for help.
As the family gathers in the dusty unused drawing room—Hal, her uncles Hardy, Abel, and Ezra, and Harding’s wife, Mitzi—Hal is shivering from cold and apprehension. When Mr. Treswick reads Mrs. Westaway’s will, Hal faints from shock and a high fever.
“And to my granddaughter, Harriet Westaway, last known to be resident at Marine View Villas, Brighton, I give the residue of my estate.”
Hal is rich—and is an imposter.
Her Uncle Harding threatens to sue, although the other uncles, Abel and Ezra, disagree. Neither expected to receive anything from their mother, from whom they had been estranged for years, and say they don’t begrudge Harriet inheriting.
When Hal awakes from her faint, Mitzi is caring for her and apologizing for her husband’s threats to sue. Abel, a kindly, soft-spoken man, is there also. At Abel’s insistence, his partner, Edward, a local doctor, gives Hal a pill to bring down her fever and help her sleep. The pill has no markings on it.
The three uncles seem to mourn the loss of their sister, Maud, especially Ezra, who was her twin. Supposedly he has spent years searching for Maud, and sincerely is grieved when Hal informs them that the woman he believes is his sister, but Hal knows isn’t, was killed in a hit-and run accident three years before.
Someone is not as happy about Hal’s presence as the other heirs insist. Someone rigs a booby trap on the stairs that sends Hal tumbling down a flight of stairs.
Entries from an old diary that belonged to the woman Hal believes is her real mother appear intermittently and provide clues to the identity of Hal’s father. Suspense builds to a nerve-stretching degree before the shocking conclusion.
A dark, dangerous, and terrifying story that Oscar Wilde might have written. But he didn’t; Ruth Ware did.