Photo by Gemma Day
Halfway though writing her fifth psychological crime thriller, best-selling novelist Ruth Ware realised that she was unconsciously treading a well-beaten track.
“I was interested in writing a book about digital abuse,” she explains, sipping a decaf cappuccino in a Brighton café. “I kept stumbling across more and more cases in the news – typically situations where one partner sets up a complex hi-tech home system, then when the relationship breaks down, uses it as a means of control. You can hack into a system and manipulate the temperature, blast music out in the middle of the night, activate a smart lock making an escape exit into a locked door….”
She started working on a plot whereby a nanny gets a new job looking after two kids in a remote house in the Scottish Highlands, which is super-equipped with every smart device imaginable; she becomes increasingly distressed as strange things start happening around her.
“Then I thought: ‘nanny goes crazy with two small kids to look after…’” smiles Ruth, “…that sounds familiar.” She hadn’t read Henry James’ classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw, but she knew all about it. “It’s a literary touchstone,” she says, “and the inspiration for films like The Others. I decided I had to read it: if I was treading the same territory, I wanted it to be conscious, not accidental.” The eventual title of the book – The Turn of the Key – is “a nod to thank him for doing it first… though the issues he raised are perennial.”
As in James’ story, there’s a framing device that kickstarts the action. “One of the problems in a psychological thriller is that the crime almost necessarily comes a long way into the book, so, early on, you have to signal to the reader that stuff is eventually going to hit the fan.” In this case a flashback narrative is related in the form of a letter written by the nanny. She’s been accused of the murder of one of the children in her charge, and is trying to persuade a lawyer to defend her. But to what extent is she telling the truth?
“One of the defining characteristics of the genre is the unreliable narrator,” explains Ruth. “The reader stands in for the lawyer, assessing the evidence, trying to work out what the nanny might be hiding.”
Three of Ware’s previous novels are being adapted for TV or film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if The Turn of the Key ends up on our screens, too. Does Ruth, I wonder, bear such adaptations in mind, as she’s writing her novels? “No,” she says. “It’s very flattering, and I think long-form TV series are among the most interesting cultural genres of our times… but if that were my endgame, I’d have become a screenwriter, not a novelist.”
The Lewes Lit, 21st Jan, 7.30pm. lewesliterarysociety.co.uk