"True Humanness consists of a continuous series
of tiny acts executed with absolute sincerity
and largeness of heart."
-Sai Baba

Identity plays large in most plots of mystery and intrigue. From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie, it's a major theme in suspense, and has been so since the genre's beginnings. When mistaken, identity begs to be corrected, set to rights, and a solution reached. Because as readers participating in the plot as mysteries demand of us we are not satisfied 'til everything is neatly wrapped up, the mystery novel unlike any other genre has a knack for consuming us until the solution is at hand, identity solved, case closed. Until then, our brains will not - cannot - rest.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway
by Ruth Ware
Simon & Schuster, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-5011-5625-0
$16.99, 368 pp

Hal is a second generation psychic medium. It's a skill she doesn't really even believe in. When money problems - coupled with a chance summons to the reading of a will by a family she doesn't belong to - sets her on a path of fraud, it's soon evident she hasn't the stomach for deceiving others. Especially when the targets of her deception meet a need she's never had fulfilled: Family.

With The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware has meticulously built a story of mystery and intrigue. From the opening page to the final passage, Ware spins it with care and precision. Her characters are fleshed out, taking her time with each, while leaving large gaps in the story that make the first half of the book more a whatdunnit than a whodunnit. She throws a few red herrings in there too, keeping us guessing alongside Hal as to what her deceased mother's history - if any - was with the Westaways, uncovering the plot in tandem with her.

Hal would be a two-dimensional ingenue-type character in other hands. Under Ware's guidance, she's full of mystery. She's a bit unrefined, struggling financially having inherited her mother's small fortune-telling business. It's hard to tell if she's a diamond in the rough, or just rough; victim or villain.

When Hal arrives at the Westaway estate for the reading, she's welcomed with a mix of hesitancy, and open arms. It's confusing to her, never having known her own family, and she struggles internally over the ethics of her charade. On one hand, she's broke, so there's that monetary motivation; on the other, she doesn't like lying to people, especially people who on the surface at least, seem genuinely concerned for her welfare.

Mrs. Warren is the maid, and a menacing character. Sour, and ancient, she dons a presence that unnerves Hal and threatens to send her packing. But she of all people - due to her position and life-long service with the Westaways - most likely has the answers to the questions running amok in Hal's head. She of all people would know where the bodies are buried, but this isn't a murder mystery. Or is it?

      "She had discovered that the most important truths often lay in what people didn't say, and learned to read the secrets that they hid in plain sight . . ."

The further Hal goes down the rabbit hole, the more criminal the whole affair looks. Not on the part of Hal, but on the part of a person or persons unknown. Using her skills as a psychic, which is really more about reading people than telling their futures, Hal chips away at incongruities and half truths:
    She had discovered that the most important truths often lay in what people didn't say, and learned to read the secrets that they hid in plain sight, in their faces, and in their clothes, and in the expressions that flitted across their faces when they thought no one was watching.
Who was her father? Who was her mother? What is the Westaway's interest in her? We're kept guessing until at last, the real mystery at the heart of The Death of Mrs. Westaway reveals itself, leaving no room for indiscretions to hide.

The Haunting of Hill House
by F. Andrew Leslie
Dramatists Play Service, 1964
ISBN: 0822205041
$10.00, 78 pp

The basic elements of The Haunting of Hill House include a group of strangers, a creepy old mansion, and things that go bump in the night. Adapted from the novel by Shirley Jackson, Hill House (a play in three acts) holds the promise of a gripping psychological thriller for the stage.

Opening Acts
The play's protagonist, one Dr. Montague, is a paranormal researcher. He chooses to study Hill House for its reputation of holding ghosts. To conduct the study, he chooses a misfit crew of characters with a past history of paranormal/psychic encounters. Eleanor Vance, in her late twenties, was sought out by the doctor for an experience she had as a young girl. Shortly after her father's death, in the middle of the afternoon, stones began falling from the sky, seemingly intent on pummeling her house, and her house alone. Theodora is a woman also in her late twenties, with the touch of the exotic about her. She's described as "A creature of mood and sudden impulse," with a keen eye for humor under otherwise humorless circumstances. There is also a man named Luke Sanderson, the rightful heir to the estate, in his early thirties, with the unenviable talent of taking nothing seriously. His participation is one of necessity; a requirement for Dr. Montague to gain access to the brooding old home.

The cast is rounded out by Mrs. Montague, the doctor's wife, who is in her own right a seasoned researcher with a flair for drama; her assistant Arthur Parker; and a humorless housekeeper named Mrs. Dudley who avoids Hill House after dark, while treading lightly when she is there, as if to appease it.

    THEODORA: (Turning back to Eleanor.) Charming soul [Mrs. Dudley].
    (Absently.) She walks without making a sound.
    (Questioning.) What?
    ELEANOR: It's nothing . . . just that it's so utterly quiet here. As though the house
    wanted silence - and she was afraid not to obey.
As the play advances, strange events occur. Doors close of their own accord; there's unexplained pounding in the night; and messages directed at Eleanor - perhaps from beyond the grave - appear on the hallway wall as if written by an invisible hand. As the research drags on, the "psychic events" increase with intensity, Hill House seemingly growing more impatient and threatening with each minute, culminating in Eleanor's expulsion.

That's a 'Wrap'
Final scenes usually wrap up stories with neat, tidy finishes. There's nothing tidy at all about the wrap of Hill House. The events have left Eleanor traumatized, her "psychic encounters" looking more like bi-polar episodes. She's banished from the house for her own safety, the curtain falling on a maniacal laugh that reverberates throughout the mansion.

While Leslie's adaptation holds some great elements for a successful psychological thriller, it somehow misses the mark. We're to assume Hill House itself is the source of the phenomena, but there's never really any explanation given, leaving the play - despite its potential for recreating the suspense of Shirley Jackson's novel - falling unfortunately flat. But maybe that's the point: hiding the source of the activity; paranormal belonging to, after all, the realm of the unexplained.

posted 07/20/21