The New York Times didn’t ask my opinion: “The Turn of the Key”


CW / Joe Will Field

Jenna Minser, Contributing Writer

The New York Times didn’t ask my opinion is a regular column reviewing New York Times Best Sellers. 

When Ruth Ware, a master of mystery writing and one of my personal favorite authors, released the newest edition to her collection of bestsellers – The Turn of the Key – I was thrilled. I’ve read a few of her books before and fell in love with her style of suspense, character-building and slow build that crescendos into chaos at the very end. 

The Turn of the Key follows the story of Rowan Caine, a 30-something child care worker living in London. She isn’t even looking for a new job when she stumbles upon an ad for what could be the perfect gig: nannying for three children in a beautiful mansion in the Scottish highlands. The best part? An extremely, almost suspiciously generous paycheck at the end of the year. 

But things aren’t all that they seem at the beautiful Heatherbrae estate. Caine is fifth in a steady stream of nannies who have gone just as quickly as they have come in the last few years. The home and the grounds have a dark past that no one is quite willing to talk about. And for some reason the oldest child, Maddie, seems to have a personal and violent grudge against Caine from the moment she arrives. As Caine takes up her position, the mysteries and secrets of Heatherbrae and its inhabitants slowly come to light in a tale that ends with the death of one of the children and Caine on trial for murder. 

Structured as a letter from Caine pleading a new lawyer to take up her case, the book flits between the story of Caine’s time at Heatherbrae and her stressing her innocence from behind bars. It’s in classic Ware format: the suspense, the complex and large cast of characters and the slow, slow build.  I wanted to like this book so badly. I wanted to fall in love with Caine and feel the creepiness of the chilly nights at Heatherbrae, to be on the edge of my seat with every turn. But I wasn’t. 

I was bored. 

For the first 250 pages, almost nothing happens. It takes the first 100 or so for Caine to even get into Heatherbrae, Ware offering us inconsequential details of train journeys and smoke breaks and Rowan wondering whether or not she’ll get an interview for the position. When she finally arrives, Ware builds walls of text focused on how complicated the light switches and showers are and Caine’s complaints about the large binder of instructions that Sandra, the children’s mother, left for her. Not only is it unnecessary, but it makes Caine seem whiny and unlikeable. For most of the book, I was completely unconcerned about Caine’s imprisonment. 

In Ware’s other books, the slow build is accompanied by sprinklings of details about the mystery and unraveling subplots that keep the reader interested. While Ware does offer some hints about what is really going on at Heatherbrae, the clues don’t connect in any way. Instead, it feels like a random smattering of slightly creepy details that never come together in an ah-ha moment. As for the subplots, the reader gets a half-baked, unconvincing romance between Caine and one of the other Heatherbrae employees. 

The format of the story is also unconvincing. First, that anyone writing a letter from prison trying to prove their innocence would write a single, novel-length letter that included so many unnecessary details. Caine addresses this by continually saying she has to tell the whole truth because “the truth will set her free” and she “tried only telling part of the story, and that wound her up in prison.” But Caine, the details of you struggling with the light switches at Heatherbrae are not going to help your case. I know I’ve mentioned the light switches before, but I just can’t stress enough how often they were discussed in this book. 

The worst part of this story is that the end is completely unsatisfying. Ware waits until the last 20 pages to even attempt to wrap up the story.  What we get is undeveloped, unimagined and the kind of rushed akin to the final season of Game of Thrones

To be fair, the book isn’t all bad. Ware is still a masterful writer. I found myself wanting to continue reading through the drudgery of the light switches just because it was really well written. I believed in Caine, even if I didn’t like her, and bought into Heatherbrae and its secrets. With Ruth Ware in the drivers’ seat, this story had so much potential, but it failed to deliver. 

I wouldn’t recommend this book, especially if this is your first time reading a Ruth Ware mystery. But, with that being said, Ruth Ware as an author is definitely worth the time. I would personally recommend her book In a Dark, Dark Wood, which is a 2015 New York Times Bestseller. But The Turn of the Key wasn’t worth the time. Unless you enjoy a lot of light switch content. 

Grade: C