The Old College Murder

‘The It Girl,’ a modern dark academia murder mystery from ‘the modern Agatha Christie’

Ruth Ware earned the moniker of “modern Agatha Christie” with her perennially bestselling riffs on locked-room mysteries.

She’s set novels in forbidding houses (In a Dark, Dark Wood; The Turn of the Key), a cruise ship (The Woman in Cabin 10) and a snowed-in ski resort (One by One). The walls figuratively close in on her characters as her plots unwind.

Her beguiling new novel is fresh and appealing new territory, with just a kernel of the locked-room trope. The It Girl ponders false accusations and facile appearances in a contemporary dark-academia story with, naturally, a murder to kick things off.

The It Girl
‘The It Girl’ by Ruth Ware.

In flashbacks, we learn that a decade ago, scholarship student Hannah Jones met wealthy and glamorous April Clark-Cliveden when they were suitemates at Oxford’s fictional Pelham College.

April seems to be everything Hannah isn’t – confident, well-dressed, flirtatious, a prankster. April is also dead, strangled the night of her star turn in a performance of Medea.

Hannah’s testimony put creepy residence-hall porter John Neville behind bars, after she told police that she saw him leaving the hall the night of the murder: “Afterwards, it was the door she would remember. It was open, she kept saying to the police. I should have known something was wrong.”

Ten years on, Neville has died in prison, and a reporter is sniffing around inconsistencies in Hannah’s story. Now married to former Pelham classmate Will, Hannah works as a bookseller as she awaits the birth of their first child. She’s avoided any discussion of that night, but newly fueled by the fear that she identified the wrong man, she starts digging.

Ware eagerly plumbs the disconnects between her characters’ public and true selves. April evinces a spoiled party-girl exterior that masks her intelligence. Neville blunders past social boundaries, stoking all the students’ suspicions that he’s dangerous.

Young Hannah is prone to fits of insecurity. She’s hyper-conscious of her social status compared to many of the other students, with April pouring Dom Perignon to toast the new school year and hallmate Hugh’s posh accent broadcasting his cosseted upbringing. As an adult, Hannah worries about passing muster as a mom, and then worries about her worries.

But where Hannah shines is her persistence. The knowledge that Neville had mounted yet another appeal just before he died drives her to query their former classmates and travel back to Pelham for a look at their old stomping grounds and a chat with teachers.

It isn’t over, Hannah wants to say through gritted teeth, if I made a mistake. It isn’t over if Geraint Williams is correct and my evidence left the wrong person to rot in jail. If all that’s true, it’s very, very far from over.”

There’s never a real indication that Hannah might be a Gone Girl-style unreliable narrator, but nearly everyone else seems to fall under reasonable suspicion. We expect red herrings in a Ware novel, yet it’s impressive that each potential culprit feels credible, even as the reader’s braced for misdirection.

And Ware’s expansion from the confines of a university residence hall in time frame and location lets the novel’s central whodunnit occupy the heart of a thriller that also plumbs trust, memory and the bonds of friendship. It’s an exciting direction for her books, and one that breaks promising new ground.

(Gallery/Scout Press, July 12, 2022)  

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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