English author Ruth Ware has been working the female-centered psychological mystery seam to best-selling effect since her chilly 2015 debut “In a Dark, Dark Wood.” Her plots and settings vary from country houses to ocean cruises to ski lodges, but the theme of sins from the past coming back to haunt innocents in the present is always a staple.
Ware’s novels can be hit or miss, usually because of questions of plausibility. A personal favorite is “Turn of the Key” because its shocking twist felt well-earned. On the other hand, her previous novel, “One by One,” a snowbound ski-lodge tribute to Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” at a snowbound ski-lodge, didn’t play fair. Thankfully, “The It Girl” is a return to form, albeit with some minor reservations.
“The It Girl” is set in two time-frames, at Oxford University circa 2012, when the murder takes place, and 10 years later, as doubts arise about the identity of the actual killer. Hannah Jones and April Clarke-Cliveden — guess which is the posh one? — meet up in the fictional Pelham College rooming together in the “New Quad, staircase seven, room two.”
The middle-class striver Hannah is quickly swept up into the small circle of April’s rich friends. Hannah hails from a fictional town with the perhaps too-on-the-nose provincial name of Dodsworth, and would seem to make an odd pairing with April, “heir to a city fortune,” beautiful, frightfully smart, generous with gifts, and “occasionally vicious.”
But they bond via a strip poker session Hannah is coerced into by April, where she meets the rest of the gang, also there under various shades of duress: Emily, Ryan, Hugh, and Will, who Hannah takes a fancy to after a welcome display of gallantry, despite him being April’s boyfriend. Emily is the blunt one, Will is the kind one with suppressed anger, Hugh is straight-laced and almost too polite, Ryan is the headstrong college commie, all rotating around April as the center of campus fascination.
Hannah overcomes her impostor syndrome and makes it through her first term with flying colors, although we have to take her academic brilliance on faith.
But then April is found murdered in their room — strangled after a party to celebrate her theatrical debut. Creepy college porter John Neville is sent to prison for the killing, based on Hannah’s testimony. She swore in court she saw Neville “slipping out of the opening to the number 7 staircase” before hurrying off into the night, mere minutes before Hannah found April dead. It made sense: Neville was odd and creepy and had acted inappropriately with Hannah multiple times. Only one thing nags: Hannah does not actually remember finding April’s body, having blocked out everything after noticing the open door to their room.
The scene jumps to present-day Edinburgh, where Hannah is shocked with the news that Neville has died in prison after a decade of fruitlessly appealing his innocence. A podcaster is nosing around the case on its 10th anniversary and thinks he’s uncovered evidence that Neville could actually be innocent, leading Hannah down a familiar trail of self-doubt. “Did she make a mistake?” If so, then April’s killer was still out there.
Ten years later, Hannah is doing all right in Edinburgh, married to Will and expecting his baby. She has an undemanding job in a used book store. We get the sense of a stalled but relatively happy life, although one still “haunted by April’s ghost.”
As “Oxbridge” immersion goes, “The It Girl” is no “Brideshead Revisited,” but Ware provides more than sufficient atmosphere for the genre, as Hannah sorts out rectors from provosts and masters honorable traditions such as climbing over spiked walls to get back into college, before the heady fun comes to a tragic end with April’s murder.
As a main character, Hannah is dithery, slightly dull, and guilt-ridden enough to put her own life and that of her baby in danger to uncover the truth. The pregnancy plot risks pumping in artificial drama like so much breast milk, but it does make Hannah seem all the more vulnerable. Ware captures the perverse push and pull of her noisy, compulsive conscience, warring with the practical desire to leave well enough alone when she’s about to become a parent. Meanwhile, her Oxford friends urge her, for different reasons, to let the past lie.
The author has corralled a manageable passel of suspects, all still conveniently close at hand a decade after the murder: Will is hitched with Hannah, Emily teaches math at Oxford, Hugh became an Edinburgh doctor, and Ryan is confined to a wheelchair after a stroke.
Reluctantly, she meets up with the podcaster, who thinks the late Neville was the victim of a passive defense and who might even have been innocent. He adds an intriguing detail: April was pregnant at the time. How does he know? He was told by their mutual friend Ryan. It’s one of several potential facts we have to take on someone’s say-so.
It turns out April took advantage of her friends in various ways, playing “pranks” less funny than mean-spirited, even potentially ruinous. Did the It Girl commit one practical joke too many? Ware strives to make April a larger-than-life, malign life-force, but she remains unsympathetic rather than fearsomely fascinating.
Neither is the plot foolproof. Hannah’s confounding fuzziness about the night in question enables the extended concealment of a vital detail, raising the question: Couldn’t Hannah have refreshed her memory of the trial via news accounts?
But “The It Girl” gets over on its university atmosphere, character development, and some nicely done feints. It feels suitably dramatic when Hannah finally returns to Oxford after 10 years to refresh her memory, returning to the scene of the crime and looking up her old tutor, the harrumphing Dr. Myers, joined by a relative of April’s who is as obsessed with the case as Hannah herself.
Research and craft have never been a problem for Ware. The alternating timelines are kept clean, and she has Christie’s gift of keeping all her characters on roughly equal footing as suspects in the reader’s mind.
When Hannah’s own memory finally starts functioning, previously revealed details click cleverly into place, and the inevitable showdown holds our interest. There’s even one last sleight of hand at a memorial service. “The It Girl” is not earth-shatteringly original and is slightly overlong, but still shows a murder mystery author whose gift remains very much alive.