Main / Books / The Turn of the Key

The Turn of the Key

By Ruth Ware, A Modernized Haunted House Mystery

Ruth Ware released a new mystery yesterday, entitled The Turn of the Key. As a mystery lover, I’d been looking forward to this one.

If you’re looking for an explanation of the ending, it’s at the very end of the post (after the spoiler warning)!

Plot Summary

For the Detailed Plot Summary, click here or scroll all the way down.

In The Turn of the Key, Rowan gets a job as a live-in nanny, working for a wealthy couple in their technologically-advanced home. However, the longer she’s there, the more she can tell there’s signs that things feel a little off, from the misbehaving kids to the creepy garden of poisonous plants in the back. Soon, she hears from the locals and other people about the many stories of death and murder in the home’s enigmatic past.

By the end, Rowan will find herself awaiting trail for the murder of a young child, but how she ends up where and why are the questions at the heart of this haunted house mystery.

See The Turn of the Key on Amazon.

Book Review

In the book, the house in question was once the typical haunted house with a storied and mysterious history, but has since been gutted and updated to cutting edge technological standards by the current family, the Elincourts.

Ware presents a modernized version of the old Haunted House story. Instead of creaky doors and candlelight blowing out, there’s technology that malfunctions and user setting that are messed up so that lights don’t turn on. Is it as creepy as the old-school version? Maybe not, but it’s an interesting twist on an old mystery trope, so overall I had to give Ruth Ware props for trying it.

As the mystery deepens, there are a lot of intriguing elements that get put into the story. Some are fairly typical like creepy attics and disembodied footsteps, but I thought the garden of poisonous plants was a particularly creative touch that I haven’t encountered before, or at least not that I can remember.

That said, when the story concludes, it’s a little anti-climactic. It makes sense reasonably enough so I won’t completely discount it, but it doesn’t quite stick the ending.

There’s two minor twists that aren’t entirely set up properly. They don’t play enough of a place in the plot and there’s not enough clues throughout the book for it to feel like a real “reveal.” The final twist (the conclusion to the book) is just okay. It makes sense and is reasonably surprising, though it leaves so much of the other events in the book to be chalked up as random coincidences or things that amount to nothing that it’s not entirely satisfying.

Read it or Skip it?

This one is tough, because I did think the plot was interesting and mysterious. And the ending makes sense at least which is always nice. At the same time, the ending really was kind of a let down. The resolution doesn’t really have that satisfying feel when everything comes together. There’s a lot of details that seem like they should be part of the mystery but end up just falling away as creepy coincidences at the end.

I guess I would still recommend this book for people who like mystery-thrillers, but I’d describe The Turn of the Key as a fairly run-of-the-mill entry into this genre. I would definitely consider reading a different Ruth Ware book later though, since I thought the writing was fine and the story was interesting.

That said, if you’re looking for a haunted house story with a more solid ending, I’d recommend Lock Every Door which came out earlier this year by Riley Sagar, over this one. Still glad I read this one though!

See The Turn of the Key on Amazon.

Spoilers and Explanation start here! Don’t read beyond this point if you haven’t read the book! Keep reading if you’ve read the book, but have questions!

Where can I find a full plot summary of the Turn of the Key?

Right Here! For the full summary of The Silent Patient, scroll down a little (below the line break) and click Show/Hide Detailed Plot Summary

Is the Turn of the Key based on the Turn of the Screw by Henry James?

There are certainly homages to The Turn of the Screw in Turn of the Key, and the initial setup has some similarities. In both, the main character arrives to a large house as a governess/nanny and the primary guardian/parents is largely absent.

However, the actual plot of The Turn of the Key is vastly different.

How did Maddie have access to the attic in the Turn of the Key?

I’m not really sure about this one, but from the looks of it (based on what Ellie wrote in her letter), it sounds like she might’ve climbed from Rachel’s window up to the attic.

What happens at the end of the Turn of the Key?

In the end, we find out that Rowan’s real name is Rachel — she pretended to be her ex-roommate who had better qualifications than she did. Moreover, Rachel’s dad is Bill Elincourt, who left her mom when she was nine months pregnant. She applied for the job because she was Googling his name and saw it as a chance to get to know him.

We find out that the reason that the nannies keep leaving is because Bill Elincourt sexually harasses all of them. The first one (who stayed the longest) was Holly, and Bill had an affair with her. This is why Jean, Rhiannon and Maddie are so unfriendly because they don’t trust the nannies.

As we know from the beginning, Rachel becomes the prime suspect. She has written this letter in order to ask a lawyer for assistance. However, in the epilogue we learn that she never ended up sending the letter. Presumably, this is because she gets a letter from Ellie admitting that she (Ellie) was the one who pushed Maddie. Maddie was trying to get rid of Rowan/Rachel, and Ellie wanted her to stop. So, it seems like Rachel doesn’t send the letter in order to keep Ellie’s secret. In other words, no, I do not think Rachel ends up getting out of jail. But I think this is open to your interpretation.

Ellie also tells us that Maddie was the one who was messing around in the attic and who planted the antique doll head downstairs in order to scare Rowan/Rachel into leaving.

As a side note, some people have argued that the ending is left a little vague. Perhaps she did send the letter or perhaps something happened to her to prevent her sending them. I think you could reasonably make these argument, though I personally don’t think that’s the case here. The letters state clearly they were never sent and that Ellie admitted to killing her sister. I don’t see any evidence that points to anything else.

Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)

Chapters 1 - 6

The book opens with a series of letters addressed to a solicitor, Mr. Wrexham asking for help. They are from a 27-year old woman, Rowan Caine, who is in prison awaiting her trial for murder of a child. Her court-appointed layer, Mr. Gates, doesn't believe in her innocence. Her trial is in 140 Days.

Rowan starts to dictate her story. She responded to an advert posted by a wealthy couple Sandra and Bill Elincourt seeking a live-in nanny for four children (baby Petra, Ellie 5, Maddie 8, and Rhiannon 14 who is at boarding school during the week). The Elincourts own an architectural firm and have two dogs (Hero and Claude). They also have a young man who drives and does other odd jobs for them, Jack Grant, and an older housekeeper, Jean McKenzie.

Bill likes technology. Their house is full of gadgets and "smart" appliances. The front door has no physical lock, only a digital panel. Their house, Heatherbrae House, is located on several acres of wooded grounds and has some superstitious stories that have been passed around about it. Sandra says they've had trouble keeping nannies, the last one being Katya, due to those stories.

The beginning of the interview goes smoothly, but she finds a disconcerting drawing and an unfinished note from Katya addressed to whoever the new nanny would be on the floor. Still, Rowan is eager for the job. She was recently passed up for a promoting and her flatmate Rachel is off traveling, so she's wanting a change.

Chapters 7 - 11

Rowan spends the night at the house in order to continue the interview the next day. All the "smart" technology is overwhelming. She can't get the lights to work or the shower to adjust to her settings. She meets the kids, and learns that Sandra monitors them via the cameras set up in their bedrooms and all over the house, which Rowan finds a bit creepy. She covers up the one in her room. When it's time to leave, Maddie (8-yr-old) tells her not to come work here and that it's not safe because of the ghosts.

Rowan gets the job and soon she moves into the house. Sandra gives her a 250-page manual. That night, Bill comes on to her, but she rebuffs him. When she goes to sleep, she hears footsteps but doesn't see anyone there. She feels anxious and needs her inhaler. The Elincourts head out of town the next day. Alone with the kids, they are being difficult. Rowan feels anxious over being monitored via the cameras. She takes the dogs on a walk, but hears a scream from the baby monitor. She runs back, but Jean is there, but says she heard nothing.

Chapters 12 - 15

In the house, some of the doors have physical locks. For those, the keys that are kept on hooks where kids can't reach them. But there's doors being locked and keys going missing, and Rowan doesn't know what is going on. She's not sure if she can trust either Jean or Jack. Jack seems to be nice, but Jean clearly dislikes her. The kids continue to be difficult. Jack, who lives on the ground as well, shows up to check on things, and Rowan has supper with him. When Rowan she goes to lock the utility room door, she finds the key is missing. But Jack finds it in a place Rowan is sure she searched previously.

That night, she hears footsteps again. There's a locked door in her room, and she wants to unlock it to investigate, but can't get it open. She also finds that a necklace she took off earlier has gone missing. Rowan starts to wonder if someone is trying to scare her off, but doesn't know why anyone would want to do that.

The next day, Rachel calls from abroad to say hi. Then, the kids take her to a locked garden. It's a lush area, but has a creepy statue of a woman labeled Achlys (Greek Goddess of death and poison).Later, Sandra calls and is angry about her going in the garden, which is full of poisonous plants left over from the previous owner who was a chemist (Kenwick Grant). Rowan realizes Maddie purposefully took her there to get her in trouble. When Rowan confronts the kids about it, Ellie admits it. She also tells her that the chemist's daughter Elspeth died from something in the garden. The chemist went crazy after her death and had to be put away.

Chapters 16 - 18

That night, music starts blaring from everywhere in the house, and it scares the kids. Rowan is unable to turn it off because she's locked out of the system. Jack shows up and fixes the settings to turn it off, but Rowan still wonders who was trying to log in as her to get her locked out. Jack's also confused since only an admin (Sandra or Bill) could override all the speakers in the house.

The next morning, Maddie refuses to get dressed. When she brushes her teeth, she spits into Rowan's face. Rowan nearly hits Maddie.

With the kids in school, Rowan and Jack take a tour around town. One of the townswomen, Mrs. Andrews, tells her about the Struans that used to live in the house. It was called the Struan House then. One of them killed his wife and child and another committed suicide in the house. That afternoon, Rowan then ties up the garden gate with string.

The doorbell app rings in the middle of the night, but she checks the door and no one is there. Rowan returns to her room to find the window open. There's more mysterious footsteps coming from above again that night. The next day, Ellie mentions something about a man who makes the girls do things they don't want to do.

Chapters 18 - 24

Rhiannon arrives that day, earlier than planned. She's rude and bratty. She goes off to a sleepover at her friend's house. When she comes home, she's drunk.

Jack comes by later and offers to check out the locked door in Rhiannon's room. When the open it, it leads to a closet and a boarded up staircase to the attic. In the attic, they are shocked to see it covered in feathers and angry messages saying "WE HATE YOU" "GET OUT" and whatnot. The feathers seem to be from a bird that must have gotten in there. After, she asks Jack (Grant) if he's related to the chemist that lived here, Kendwick Grant. He says no. They lock back up the door, but that night she finds a doll's head from the attic downstairs, which she cuts her hand on. Ellie tells her it was "another little girl" who put it there.

Rowan figures out Rhiannon lied about being at her friend's house and was with a guy, Craig. When Rowan says she has to tell to her parents, Rhiannon threatens to expose Rowan. She knows Rowan's real name is Rachel Gerhardt.

It's now revealed that Rachel (the real name of our protagonist) used Rowan's (her roommate) background, experience and references to get the nanny job because it was similar but somewhat better than her own. And Rhiannon has figured it out (by doing some research on her online).

Chapters 25 - 28

Rachel knows she needs to talk to Sandra and Bill and tell them the truth. That night, Jack comes over sees the cut on her hand is infected. They go to his flat across the grounds where he has a first aid kit. Jack tells her that he suspects Bill preyed on all the previous nannies which is why they left. Rachel and Jack sleep together.

Before she leaves his flat, Rachel sees the string she used to tie up the garden gate and a purple poisonous flower on a counter top in his flat. She goes back to the house and sees poisonous cherry laurel berries, the same type that killed Elspeth, crushed in the kitchen sink.

She feels a breeze in her room and goes up to the attic and finds the window has blown open. She closes it, but also sees a pile of stuff, including her necklace that had gone missing and someone's cell phone. She charges up the cell phone.

Rhiannon tries to sneak home after sneaking out and drinking. Rachel confronts her, and tells her to go ahead and expose her. They argue and Rhiannon admits why they are mean to the nannies. Holly, the first nanny, had been sleeping with their father for two years. Rhiannon found out and managed to get Holly to goad her into hitting her in front of a camera to get her fired.

Rhiannon also tells Rachel that he had another family, another child, before them who he left. Rachel already knows this though, since she now reveals via narration that she is Bill Elincourt's first child.

Chapters 29 - 31

Rachel now fills in details of her past, that she was the child that reminded her mother of the man (Bill) that left her when she was nine months pregnant. Rachel grew up hungry for her mother's approval, but could never get it. The necklace she had that went missing was the only gift he ever sent to Rachel, which she always wore. Rachel found the job ad while Googling his name, and she applied for the job because she wanted to meet him, only to find out what type of man he really was the first night.

When she goes to check on the kids, Maddie is missing. The find her dead body on the cobblestones just outside Rachel's window.

The police think that Rachel and Maddie must have had some sort of altercation that happened in Rachel's room which is how Maddie ended up outside Rachel's window. Because Rachel covered up the camera in her room, she can't prove otherwise.

Through the investigation, it's revealed that Jack has a rather mundane secret, that he is married, with a wife and two year old. Rachel ends her letter to Mr. Wrexham by begging him to take her case, saying she's innocent.


The book ends with other other letters and papers that reveal what happened after. We find out that Rachel never ends up sending the letter to Mr. Wrexham.

We learn that Jean was unfriendly, since she viewed the nannies as more pretty girls who would come and leave and break the little girls' hearts. Sandra ended up leaving Bill and taking the children.

Ellie writes Rachel a letter admitting that she was the one who pushed Maddie. Maddie was the one messing around in the attic to try to scare Rachel. (She used the cell phone with Sandra's PIN in order to have access to the controls of the house to scare her, etc.)

If this summary was useful to you, please consider supporting this site by leaving a tip ($2, $3, or $5) or joining the Patreon!

See The Turn of the Key on Amazon.

Share this post


Bookshelf -- A literary set collection game