In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

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Title: In a Dark, Dark Wood

Author: Ware, Ruth (Author’s Website)

Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller

Bibliographic: Simon and Schuster, 353 pages, Hardcover List Price $26.00, Paperback List Price $16.00, Downloadable Audiobook List Price $17.00, Audiobook CD List Price $19.99, ISBNs 9781501112317, 9781501112331, 9781410484987, 9781501112324, 9781594139918

Publication Date: August 4, 2015

Rating: ★★★★★/♥♥♥♥♥ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Intricately plotted, fast-paced, menacing, compelling

Why I picked it up: I got the author’s second novel from the Book of the Month Club, devoured it, and immediately went out and got this, her first novel.

S.I.A.S.: Nora attends Clare’s bachelorette party, even though they haven’t spoken in years, and things go from strange to sinister.

Summary: Leonora (Nora) Shore, a crime novelist and a bit of a loner, is surprised one day to receive an email from a woman she’s never met inviting her to a hen do for her best friend from school, Clare, to whom she hasn’t spoken in nearly a decade — especially since she never received an invitation to the wedding. When she and her friend Nina arrive at the (creepy, isolated) house in Northumberland where the party is being held, they meet their host, Flo — Clare’s best friend from University, who has a habit of dressing and acting just like Clare and is a bit mentally unstable. The other guests at the party — Melanie, who has never spent a night away from her six-month-old son, and Tom, a catty, gossipy playwright — are equally odd, and the party very quickly starts to feel strained.

When Clare arrives, she informs Nora that the groom is none other than Nora’s childhood sweetheart, the reason she never finished school and the reason Clare and Nora lost contact. This makes Nora feel a bit uncomfortable, and Flo’s obsession with giving Clare the perfect party puts the rest of the guests on edge. As the planned activities get weirder, the group gets jumpier, until eventually someone is dead and Nora can’t remember who or how.

Evaluation:  In a Dark, Dark Wood is a well-written mystery story that moves along at a very fast clip while still managing to build suspense. Using the hospital as a framing device to contrast the horrible reality of the situation — someone has been murdered, but we don’t know who or by whom — with the seemingly innocuous events of the hen do weekend is a great way to keep the reader interested. There is quite a bit of obvious foreshadowing in the book, but this isn’t a detriment; for example, early in the book when the characters notice that there is a gun prominently displayed in the House, one of them explicitly mentions Anton Chekhov in relation to it. Rather than making the story more predictable, these sorts of scenes lead the reader to question what they think they know. I found myself wondering if perhaps the gun was just a red herring (it’s not). As the story moves forward, the reader spends more time questioning whether or not Nora is a reliable narrator — even so, the ending is satisfying and there are no threads left unresolved.

The characters were mostly three-dimensional. Leonora, Clare, and Nina seemed like real people, and James was surprisingly well-developed considering that we spend very little time with him, and most of it in flashbacks from the perspective of an increasingly unreliable narrator. Tom, Melanie, and Flo were less dynamic, but this could also have been a choice based on the situation: the novel is told from Nora’s perspective, and Nora has just met them for the first time. It would have felt strange for the reader to know the characters better than the first-person narrator.

I found it very enjoyable to read, and think it would work well for fans of mystery or thriller novels — I might recommend it to fans of Tana French, even though this story isn’t told from the police’s perspective.

Finally, I listened to this as an audiobook. The narrator, Imogen Church, is fantastic. She, like the author, is English, and she does an excellent job of differentiating the characters by voice and accent. One of the highlights of her performance is the way she voices Flo — we first meet Flo via an email, and Nora has no idea what her voice might sound like: she is portrayed as peppy and a bit high-pitched. When Nora meets Flo in person, her voice is much deeper and her accent is slightly different — that Church made the effort to voice Nora’s imagined Flo differently from the actual Flo was impressive. Another shining moment is when Nora takes a taxicab away from the hospital. The cabdriver is a man whose accent is described as a mixture of Punjabi and British, and Church nails it (while managing to sound like a man).

Significance: This is the first novel Ruth Ware published as well as the first novel published by Scout Press.

Readalikes:  And then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. Listen to Me, by Hannah Pittard. One Last Scream, by Kevin O’Brien.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Why does Nora put so much emphasis on her preferred name? Do her many different monikers — Leonora, Lee, Leo, Nora, and L.N. — represent different aspects of her personality? What is the significance of names for the other characters?
  2. Do you think Nora’s feelings for James are appropriate, given their history and the length of time since they’ve communicated? Why is she so hung up on him?
  3. Why is running so important to Nora? What does her constant desire to be able to get away say about her?
  4. Is Nora a reliable narrator?
  5. How do you think the Glass House’s isolation from the rest of the world impacts the story? How different would things have been if the phones had worked?

Lists and Awards: LibraryReads Favorites 2015; Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Awards 2015: Best Mystery & Suspense

Professional Reviews: NPR. Publishers Weekly. Kirkus.

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