Book Review: THE TURN OF THE KEY, a nanny accused of murder pleads innocence

The Turn of the Key
Ruth Ware

London child carer Rowan Caine, an employee in the baby room at Little Nippers, happens upon a advertisement for a live-in nanny for the Elincourts, the parents of whom are partners in an architectural firm with four girls, a teenager in boarding school, Maddie, an eight-year-old, Ellie, five, and Petra, just eighteen months, in the Scottish Highlands.

Though there are signs of trouble—the Elincourts’ estate, Heatherbrae House, is rumored to be haunted, and several nannies have come and gone in a short time, leaving mother Sandra needing to fill the post urgently—Rowan finds herself seduced by the opulence and charmed by Sandra and the younger girls.

When Rowan receives the job, she is elated, but she quickly wonders if she will go the way of the other nannies. On her first night in the home, Sandra tells her she and Bill, the father, who Rowan first met that evening, will be traveling for work for a least a week starting the next day. Later, when Rowan and Bill are alone, he subtly makes a pass at her.

Maddie seems determined to undermine Rowan at every turn. Even worse, it seems someone—or something—is trying to drive Rowan away. The smart house malfunctions, blasting music and lights in the middle of the night. Keys go missing. Maddie and Ellie lead Rowan to a nightmarish garden that Rowan later learns is a poison garden planted by a previous occupant, a chemist, whose daughter died after eating berries planted there.

The groundskeeper, Jack, always seems to be around when Rowan is terrorized, yet as the only other adult on the premises, she can’t help but want to confide in him. Jean, the cleaner, displays an instant dislike to Rowan, and also falls under Rowan’s suspicion.

After only weeks in the post, Rowan is paranoid to the point of breaking, one of the girls is dead, and Rowan has been arrested for her murder. Writing to a solicitor from prison, Rowan recounts her time at Heatherbrae House maintaining her innocence. However, her claims are hard to believe when the police uncovered so many lies.

The Turn of the Key has been my favorite Ruth Ware book yet. The isolated nature of Heatherbrae House which stokes Rowan’s paranoia lends itself to a very focused and precise narrative with only a few key characters. As Rowan became more and more horrified and frightened, most of these characters became viable suspects. The first third or so of the novel drew an alarming portrait of Heatherbrae House and its inhabitants, while the conclusion was filled with action and surprises. Though these revelations seemed to arrive completely unexpectedly, most were cunningly planted from the beginning of the narrative.

For me, the book pulled me in quickly and gathered steam, and I found it entertaining, though disturbing to know on of the children would die. For the most part, I thought the epistolary format was a good choice for telling this story, though at times, I thought Rowan’s direct pleas to Mr. Wrexham were overwrought, and, while understandable given her status, a little distracting to her story about Heatherbrae House. Still, it was unclear if Rowan was a reliable narrator or not, and figuring this out was part of the intrigue of the book.

I am amazed at Ware’s versatility. I’ve read all her thrillers, and they all have such unique styles. Her ability to craft new stories with different structures and voices impresses me. If you are a fan of Ware or of psychological thrillers, you’ll probably enjoy this entertaining read!

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