Ruth Ware employs the murder at an English country estate device to a mostly satisfying effect in her first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood. In doing so, Ware creates a crazy quilt of characters and a plot that is part mystery and part thriller. The mostly likable narrator, Nora, is a crime fiction writer living in London who receives an invitation to attend a “hen” –a kind of bachelorette party– being thrown for Claire, her childhood best friend. The hen takes place at an isolated country house and, as Nora has not seen Claire in years due to an unspecified falling out, the stage is set for some obvious drama. Shortly after arriving, Nora learns that Claire is going to marry Nora’s ex-boyfriend and the discomfort level quickly ratchets up to eleven. To make things worse, Nora soon realizes that Flo, Claire’s friend who organized the hen, is mentally unstable. Add to this a landline that inexplicably stops working, nonexistent cell phone reception, a mysterious set of footprints in the snow leading to the backdoor of the house and an unloaded shotgun over the fireplace and it is clear that something very bad is going to happen.
Although In a Dark, Dark Wood is the debut novel from Ruth Ware, she has experience in the publishing business and her knowledge is evident in both the structure and pacing of the novel. Her prose is fluid and the pages fly by so quickly you will be tempted to read the book in one sitting. Despite these strengths, the book is not without it’s problems. You will almost certainly guess the murderer’s identity early on making you wonder why the narrator hasn’t figured this out too. In the latter part of the book the narrator seems frustratingly obtuse about criminal investigations and engages in some behavior that feels suspiciously like plot manipulation. These issues were not enough to make me want to fling the book against the wall in disgust but there was some serious eye rolling going on. Still, the dialogue is sharp and although this is more a light mystery than a thriller, there are several moments of tension and outright fear that are well written. Despite the plot problems I enjoyed this book in large part because of Ware’s writing and the interesting characters. All in all a solid debut novel from an author I looked forward to following.
In a Dark, Dark Wood, Gallery/Scout Press, 320 pp., $26.00.