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The It Girl
In a Q&A, British thriller writer Ruth Ware talks about her latest, being touted as the new Agatha Christie and how her books differ from other crime novels / BY Rosemary Counter / July 15th, 2022
For her perfect plot structure and ever-mounting suspense, British crime novelist Ruth Ware has been called “the Agatha Christie of our generation.” The bestselling author’s sixth book, The It Girl, is Ware at her peak. Set at insular Oxford University, in an imagined Pelham College, working-class wallflower Hannah becomes fast BFFs with charismatic April – rich, beautiful, fashionable … and very murder-able – and her circle of posh private school frenemies, each with a motive to murder. Deftly bifurcated by past and present, Hannah realizes the porter she sent to prison with her testimony may have been innocent, while the real killer has gone free – unless Hannah can solve the mystery of who really killed April and why. On Zoom from her home in Sussex, Ware talks to Zoomer about life as a modern-day Agatha Christie.
Rosemary Counter: See what I’m reading? I’m three quarters the way through The It Girl and I have a whole lot of theories.
Ruth Ware: That’s wonderful. No spoilers!
RC: This is your sixth book – or maybe your 12th. In fact, Ruth Ware isn’t even your real name.
RW: I used to write young adult books under my real name, Ruth Warburton, so when I turned to crime, my publishers wanted there not to be any confusion. They didn’t want my little 13-year-old readers to find them and get scared, though I find there are quite a few overlaps, and teenagers are very smart. I’m usually initially taken aback. Then I remember what I was reading at that age.
RC: Oooh, like what?
RW: I loved anything unsuitable. Flowers in the Attic, anything by Jilly Cooper or Dorothy L. Sayers. A lot of classic crime. Agatha Christie, of course. I think she’s the best introduction to mystery and crime out there. Her books are sophisticated but manageable, even for a nine or 10 year old. The language is clear, the plot is fast, the setting is closed.
RC: A New York Times reviewer called you “the Agatha Christie of our generation.” How does that feel?
RW: I’ll take it! I do see similarities in our writing, though they’re pretty universal here: a mystery, clues, suspects. At the end, all the pieces should click into place and it’s satisfying, but there’s also a sense of ‘oh, I should have guessed it!’ But crime readers are very sophisticated, very loyal to the genre and they read a ton of crime, so they’re not easy to fool. From my perspective, as wonderful as it is to guess the solution, it’s also great to be fooled.
RC: I loved the character of April, the It Girl … she’s so cool and interesting. I want to be her best friend, but I also understand I might have to murder her. How do you write a book where the most important character is already dead?
RW: This is how I think my book differs from classic crime. Often the victim is kind of an afterthought. The point of the book is really the detective versus the murderer, and the body is just a mechanism. Modern crime novels do a lot better at exploring how victims get stereotyped and compartmentalized by the media. There are a few tropes that come up all the time: the party girl who should have made better decisions, the perfect victim whose life was tragically cut short. I’m very conscious of not boxing anyone up and creating someone who’s difficult to compartmentalize. April is a complicated, complex, charming person who is easy to love but also easy to dislike.
RC: I’m right at a point where I’m thinking could Hannah have killed April?
RW: That would be a pretty impressive twist! Let’s just say Hannah is an unreliable narrator, even to herself. She realized the testimony she gave in the past was coloured by her preconceptions and concerns. With a decade of distance, she realizes she hadn’t been strictly truthful. I can’t say more! Unless you want me to spoil it for you?
RC: No, definitely don’t! Do you always know who your killer is or do you every change your mind as you go?
RW: I almost always know who did it, and usually why, and sometimes how. As I get to know the characters more, I might change the last two. I choose a few key scenes to anchor the book and work towards them, but don’t use a proper outline. I have tried, of course, but I can’t commit to a plan I made six months ago. I like to go where the characters go.
RC: Maybe it’s Hannah’s husband? Is that too obvious? Or maybe that’s the point?
RW: Well, there is something called a double bluff. But I’m not saying anything more.