The Death of Mrs. Westaway is another knock-it-out-of-the-park mystery by Ruth Ware. This book has it all – family secrets, a large inheritance at stake, loan sharks, tarot cards, murder mystery. This is the second Ruth Ware novel that I have read and cannot wait to get my hands on another!
Harriet Westaway, aka Hal, is a twenty-one year old in England struggling to make ends meet. Hal’s mother, Maggie, died before Hal turned eighteen, and she never knew her father. Since then, Hal has been paying the bills by reading tarot cards in her mother’s old shop on Brighton Beach pier. Like her mother, she knows that the cards do not hold magic, but people still seem to want to hear what Hal has to say when she starts turning over the cards. When Hal can’t make ends meet anymore, she borrows from a loan shark, but her payments to him do not even cover the interest he has been charging.
Out of the blue, Hal receives a notice from a lawyer, Mr. Treswick, that her grandmother has passed away and she is supposed to meet at the estate to receive her inheritance. Hal knows this must be a mistake because her grandparents died a long time ago, but obviously she needs the money to get the loan shark off her back, and maybe save her teeth!
Hal uses the money that she does have to purchase a ticket to visit the estate and meet the rest of the family. Hal figured that if she could walk away with a few hundred pounds, maybe even a thousand, she could pay off her debt while squaring away her rent and electric. She would have to deceive the family though, which she struggles with internally. They have so much money and she has so little, it only seemed fair. While there, she meets Maggie’s brothers, Ezra, Abel and Harding, and learns that there was a sister, Maud. Hal has been by herself since her mother died and likes the idea of having family all of a sudden. Hal’s plan to deceive the family becomes much more difficult when Mr. Treswick reveals that Mrs. Westaway has left the entire estate, minus some money for the grandchildren, the ornery housekeeper and funeral costs, to her! Harding, the oldest son, is enraged and the rest of the family is stunned. This has to be a mistake! Through Hal’s research and analysis of old photos that she found at the estate, she determines that Maud and Maggie are cousins and good friends. Mr. Treswick must have made a mistake in his research and finding her, thinking that Maggie and Maud were the same people since their names are so close; Maggie must be a cousin to Maud, Harding, Ezra, and Abel. Therefore, Hal is related but not entitled to the inheritance that she was bequeathed. Does she reveal the error or does she go with it?
During her stay at the estate, Hal undercovers a complicated story of Maggie and Maud. After Maggie’s parent die, Maggie travels to Mrs. Westaway’s, her aunt, estate, and becomes pregnant with Hal while there. Using the old photos taken during Maggie’s stay there, Hal narrows down who was at the estate during that time and possibly who her real father is. Mrs. Westaway is so enraged at the disgrace that Maggie bestowed the family that she locks her away in an attic bedroom, trying to force Maggie into revealing who the father is. Maggie’s cousin, and Mrs. Westaway’s daughter, Maud, helps her escape the prison bedroom and leave the estate for good without telling anyone who the father is. The two settle in Brighton Beach and struggle to make ends meet after the baby is born. Maggie returns to Mrs. Westaway’s estate to confront the father (whom I will not reveal here) and ask him for financial support. He becomes furious and kills Maggie, storing her body beneath a boat in the boathouse. Mrs. Westaway and the housekeeper adore Hal’s father, so they help him cover up the incident. Meanwhile, Maud is watching baby Hal in Brighton Beach and never sees Maggie again. Assuming the worst has happened to Maggie, Maud assumes Maggie’s identity and raises Hal as if she were her biological mother. Just before Hal turns eighteen, Maud, aka Maggie, writes to Mrs. Westway and says that she is going to tell Hal everything that she knows about what happened to the real Maggie and who Hal’s father is. Hal’s father finds out about this letter and kills Maud, aka Maggie, in front of her apartment just before Hal’s birthday.
Now that Hal has put all of this together, she has several decisions to make. Does she confront her real father? Does she reveal to the lawyer and the family what she has discovered? Or should she just runaway, as her mother and aunt had, and leave her new-found family behind? Will her father try to kill her as well to keep all of this a secret?
The ending is dramatic, but rushed. Hal and her father have an intense and brutal confrontation. Hal comes clean to Abel. The lawyer determines that Mrs. Westaway was of sound mind when making her last will and testament, and absolutely knew who Hal was when she named her the main beneficiary of the estate. Perhaps it was to make amends for the secret she took to the grave or to create upheaval in the family. Who knows.
Ruth Ware is masterful in this novel. The plot is complicated and addicting, never boring or slow. The pace is quick and easy to devour. However, I did find it a little difficult to follow at times, maybe because the names are similar and the family structure is a bit vague at first. I suppose that’s how it would have seemed to Hal as she pieced together the Westaway family. With the exception of the mawkish ending and the unfinished loan shark storyline, The Death of Mrs. Westaway is a great read.