Ruth Ware on the Joys of Re-reading Classic Crime

Posted on 16th April 2020 by Mark Skinner

Ruth Ware, whose chillingly addictive The Turn of the Key is the Waterstones Thriller of the Month for April, knows a thing or two about classic crime. In this exclusive essay she recounts how reading and re-reading the works of legendary crime writers has helped her navigate harrowing and uncertain times and why now, more than ever, we should be immersing ourselves in literature.

Why do I read? It's something I never really thought much about until recently. I read because... well, it seems like a good way to pass the time, I guess. I read because it's fun. I read to find stuff out, and walk a mile in imaginary shoes I would otherwise never occupy. I read to compare my feelings with everyone else - will I love or hate the new water-cooler read everyone is discussing?

But I'm fast coming to the conclusion that a big part of why I read is to use books as a kind of self-administered mood-altering drug. When I'm sad, I read stuff that will comfort me or cheer me up. When I'm bored I read books that will distract me, or help me to stretch my wings. When I feel alone I read to feel a sense of kinship, and maybe find others in the same boat. And when I'm stressed I read to be reassured.

Right now, like most of the rest of the world, I imagine, I feel pretty stressed.

This is a strange time to be launching a book. The Turn of the Key is out, just as all the bookshops in the UK are closed. But stories – for comfort, for reassurance, for company, for distraction – have never been more needed.

My own stress-buster is classic detective stories, specifically ones that I know pretty well. I lost my mum when I was 23, long before I was able to do without her, and for about six months after her death I mainlined Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, both in print and audiobook CDs, shutting out the roar of grief in my head with a comforting chatter of well-known voices. It didn't matter that I knew the plots off by heart – in fact that was part of the charm. Watching Harriet fall inexorably into Peter's arms, listening as Miss Marple fluttered her way through a devastating aperçu, waiting for Poirot's “little grey cells” to solve the unsolvable crime - there was something unshakeably reassuring about the way the pieces of each story fell into place even as much else in my life seemed to be falling apart. 

So when I found myself pulling Sleeping Murder off my bookshelf the other night, I knew that it was a sign that the current uncertainty was getting to me.

Why detective stories are so uniquely comforting to me is something I've tried hard to pinpoint, but never quite resolved. It's definitely something to do with the neatness of the plots, and the unfailing resolution. It's also something to do with the brisk resolution of life and death questions. The detectives rarely trivialise death – Lord Peter Wimsey for example is always full of sadness and compassion, and the story often ends with him agonising over the loss of life. But there's never any doubt that things will be resolved. We will have answers, even if they aren't easy ones. Someone will take charge of the fear and uncertainty and make order out of chaos.

Whatever the reasons, I'm not alone. Sales of detective fiction boomed in the thirties and forties, gobbled up by a public desperate for reassurance in the face of privations, bereavement and political upheaval. Throughout WWII, Christie continued to publish a book a year, sometimes even two, a remarkable output given the paper rationing in force at the time. She kicked off her wartime output with And Then There Were None, which came out in the UK in November 1938, just a couple of months after Germany invaded Poland, and concluded it twelve books later with Sparkling Cyanide, published in February 1945 a few months before VE day. There's almost no reference to the war or fighting in any of her novels published during this time, though Poirot himself is a refugee from Belgium, part of the legacy of the First World War.

For all my love of detective fiction, my own books rarely feature a detective and The Turn of the Key is no exception. My narrator, a twenty-something nanny, is both the prime suspect and the main investigator of the crime she's accused of, required to do all her own digging for the truth. Much like in Christie's And Then There Were None, the piecing together of clues is down to amateurs – who have their own share of secrets – and the final deduction is up to the reader. But like Christie, I believe in playing fair. There are plenty of clues dropped throughout, and at the end the reader should know exactly what took place at Heatherbrae House, even if some questions about the future are left up to him or her to decide. In my books, it's ordinary people who solve the unsolvable. You and me.

Ordinarily this week I would be out on the road, doing events and signings. Instead of course I'm at home like everyone else. But sometimes when I do signings, people come up to me with a dog-eared copy that's clearly been read and re-read, and sometimes they apologise for bringing a book that's in such a sorry state. I always tell them the truth – that it's fine. That I love to see a well-worn book. In fact right now, particularly now, I can't think of any higher compliment than to be not just read – but re-read.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to find out who killed Roger Ackroyd. Again.



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