Tuesday, 28 March 2023


The It Girl by Ruth Ware

The It Girl
by Ruth Ware
Gallery/Scout Press, trade paper, $18.99

Hannah Jones can’t believe she’s attending Oxford. Even more so, she can’t believe her roommate is April Clarke-Cliveden, the titular “it girl”—beautiful, wealthy, popular, and smart. And she considers Hannah her new college best friend.

Set between the present and 10 years prior, The It Girl unravels a murder that is not quite what it appears. Right from the beginning, we know that April is eventually killed and a creepy college porter is convicted of her murder. But when he dies in prison a decade later, the question of his possible innocence is raised.

Hannah finds herself tangled back in memories that might not have been as reliable as she once thought and now feels it’s her personal duty to investigate, as it was her testimony that sealed the porter’s fate.

The most suspenseful and captivating parts of the novel are the scenes set in the past when Hannah is first in college, making friends with her roommate, April, and the others in their orbit: Will, Hugh, Ryan, and Emily. The group feels the pressure of high academic expectations, but also enjoys the frivolity and thrill of college antics like strip poker. But sometimes their friendships experience fissures, as when April pranks members of the group: a ruse that makes Ryan flush his pot down the toilet, a sex doll in Hugh’s bed, and some that even more seriously impact people’s academic pursuits.

The details of April’s death are left till the end, but the possible suspects and motives are teased out as Hannah, 10 years later, returns to the past to try to solve what really happened. It is a pleasure to discover what the friends were hiding—and the possible reasons each one might have had for murdering April.

Ruth Ware also deftly and fully defines April, who feels far from the two-dimensionally drawn victims so often forgotten in murder mysteries. Ware does such a good job, the reader may find themselves hoping the murder was all a dream and that April will pop out from behind a medieval Oxford staircase after all those years, revealing to Hannah it was only a prank.

A review of this novel in hardcover first appeared in the print issue of Mystery Scene Magazine.

Review: "The It Girl" by Ruth Ware
Ariell Cacciola
Monday, 27 March 2023


Photo by Rory Lewis Photography

What is a morally ambiguous character? This is a question that I’ve asked myself frequently in the process of writing my three novels, most recently It Ends at Midnight, which was published in the Unite States in February. I guess the answer is that it’s a character whose values don’t align with the reader. But which reader? And which values? That’s where the fun really starts.

I think there are some basic values with which we can all agree. Killing is wrong, right? Murder is unequivocally to be condemned. Of course! So why is that we all sympathize with Tom Ripley when he offs the execrable Freddie Miles? The murder of Desi at the end of Gone Girl is clearly terrible but it’s hard fully to condemn Amy Dunn for killing him.

So, there are circumstances in which we can tolerate murder. What about theft? Well, The Talented Mr. Ripley goes against that, too—why should Dickie Greenstreet have all this wealth, this incredible lifestyle, and not Tom? Isn’t what Tom does in stealing from him, even down to his very identity, a not unjustified redistribution of assets from the haves to the have-nots?

Let’s see about adultery, then. This is where it gets more complicated. In my first novel, Blood Orange, the protagonist Alison is having an affair with one of her work colleagues. Her marriage isn’t happy but of course, that’s not much excuse. She’s a complex character, though, and she’s masking her unhappiness with drinking and self-sabotaging behavior. That’s something that many of us do, right. Right? Well, not if you look at the reviews that appeared on Amazon.

tyce_itendsatmidnightReaders hated Alison. I mean, they really hated her. They thought she was the worst person they’d ever read about, they wanted to reach into the pages of the book and shake her (an ironic response to a novel about domestic violence, but there we are). Not every reader, of course, but many. I was honestly shocked when I first came across such visceral responses—I hadn’t realized that morally ambiguous equaled unlikable, or that it would render a character worthy of such contempt and disdain.

That’s the thing. Morally ambiguous for me does not equal unlikable, and certainly does not mean that I won’t root for that character. But it truly is a question of what morals are being brought into question. I’m reminded of Rizzo’s song in Grease, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do"—she doesn’t lie, she doesn’t steal, she just has sexual relationships in a world that doesn’t readily permit women their sexual autonomy without judgment or prejudice.

And that to me is the core issue. There’s a standard of behavior applied t o women’s behavior that simply isn’t applied to men. He’s a stud, she’s a slut. It’s like that in life, it’s like that in the pages of books. In Blood Orange, Alison drinks, smokes, has extramarital sex and doesn’t always get home in time to put her child to bed—standard behavior for a male police officer in a detective novel and no one turns a hair. Ah, boys. Totally fine for them, utterly unacceptable for a female character.

It's the same situation with the characters in It Ends at Midnight. They’re not cookie-cutter. They’re complicated. Sylvie, the narrator of the novel, is an ambitious career-driven lawyer who has prioritized work over settling down in a relationship and having kids. Tess is married, but has no children, and is facing a potentially terminal diagnosis. They’ve been friends for years and their relationship is toxic in many ways, though not in every respect.

Are they likable? I don’t even know what that means. According to how some readers think women should behave, absolutely not. But I think they’re funny, feisty, interesting women who I’d like to spend time with, even if they’re not fluffy and sweet and spend their lives rescuing drowning kittens.

Will you root for them? I don’t know. But do they feel real? In my opinion, yes. Aspects of them are similar to me, to friends of mine, to women I’ve known and loved through all the years of my life. Selfish, bitchy, ambitious women who are capable of huge kindness, love their friends and will go to the ends of the earth for them. In other words, you or me at our worst and at our best. Human.

Harriet Tyce was born and grew up in Edinburgh. She graduated from the University of Oxford in 1994 with a degree in English Literature before gaining legal qualifications. She worked as a criminal barrister for ten years, leaving after the birth of her first child. She completed an MA in Creative Writing—Crime Fiction at UEA where she wrote Blood Orange, which is her first novel.


My Book: Harriet Tyce on Morally Ambiguous Characters
Harriet Tyce
Thursday, 23 March 2023

Eudora Welty 1977, William R. Ferris Collections

Eudora Welty in 1977 (William R. Ferris Collection, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina)

Eudora Welty and Mystery: Hidden in Plain Sight
edited by Jacob Agner and Harriet Pollack
University Press of Mississippi, December 2022

One of the most significant authors of American Southern literature—a revered clan that includes William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, and Robert Penn Warren—Eudora Welty and her writings have long been examined in microscopic detail. Yet it’s only in recent years that her links to the mystery-crime genre have been studied with the same eagle-eyed scrutiny a detective directs toward a case. Edited by Welty scholars Jacob Agner and Harriet Pollack, the essay collection Eudora Welty and Mystery: Hidden in Plain Sight (University Press of Mississippi, December 2022, 256 pages, $30.) unravels and deciphers clues that point to the genre’s impact on her life and legacy.

For mystery-crime enthusiasts, this is a enlightening guidebook to an intriguing journey.

Eudora Welty and Mystery

The book’s contributors are largely authoritative academics, though a notable exception is Tom Nolan, whose 1999 biography of Southern California crime maestro Ross Macdonald explored Macdonald’s deep friendship with Welty. Nolan went on to team with Welty biographer Suzanne Marrs for 2015’s Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, which explores the loving, platonic relationship that began in 1970 and spanned 13 years, a handful of in-person visits and nearly 350 letters.

Theirs was a reciprocal friendship. Her February 1971 piece on Macdonald’s The Underground Man, for the New York Times Book Review, elevated his status; the longtime writer of mysteries (aka genre fiction) was suddenly hailed as a literary diviner. Per their letters, Macdonald encouraged Welty to read hardboiled James M. Cain, starting with the short story "The Baby in the Icebox." She moved on to, and “thoroughly enjoyed,” the novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

Both Nolan and Marrs are contributors to this volume; their essays are among this book’s highlights—at least for this reviewer (a diehard fan of Macdonald’s work). Michael Kreyling, who has written extensively about Southern literature and (therefore) Welty, and did a study of Macdonald’s novels, takes an astute look at Welty and noir, and her works that appear to parody the genre.

Other pieces are devoted to specific Welty works and their mystery-crime elements. For instance, the short stories "Petrified Man" and "Old Mr. Marblehall" are scrutinized in relation to pulp fiction. Her 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Optimist’s Daughter is examined alongside Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library.

Ross Macdonald and Eudora Welty

(Pictured: Ross Macdonald and Eudora Welty)


In the book’s Appendix, Welty’s own library is perused, via a listing of the many mystery and “related” titles on her shelves. Turns out the literary lioness was a rabid reader of whodunits.

Her family home in Jackson, Mississippi, is today a museum. Growing up there, Welty was surrounded by books. Through her mother, a devotee of S.S. Van Dine and Mary Roberts Rinehart, Welty was introduced to a number of Golden Age crime writers. In latter-day interviews, Welty said she favored Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie (“endlessly diverting to me”), and Rex Stout (“I must have my Nero!”). She was also a huge fan of Dick Francis—and, of course, Macdonald, whose writings, she felt, surpassed those of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Eudora Welty and Mystery: Hidden in Plain Sight holds a magnifying glass over Welty’s interest and respect for a genre that was once looked upon as the poor relation to (ahem) literary works. In fact, though she won many, many literary awards over her career, the only one she displayed in her house was the Raven Award that she received in 1985 from the Mystery Writers of America—as Reader of the Year.

A mystery woman in many respects, she was also—it turns out—an unapologetic fangirl.

Southern California native Pat H. Broeske is a longtime reviewer for Mystery Scene. As a mystery devotee, and a former film industry journalist, she often writes about the intersection of Hollywood & crime, including film noir.   

Review: "Eudora Welty and Mystery: Hidden in Plain Sight" edited by Jacob Agner and Harriet Pollack
Pat H. Broeske