2020 has been a turbulent year. However, it has remained consistent in both the onslaught of new releases and the anticipated nature of those releases. However, if I had to pick just one highly anticipated release for 2020 it would have to be Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water as I adored The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Turton’s debut which won the First Novel Award at the 2018 Costa Book Awards. I’ve already published my first impressions to celebrate publication day, but now I’ve finished all 500+ pages! Let’s find out if this beautifully produced book lived up to my expectations.
It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported from the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam, where he is facing trial and execution for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent, while also on board are Sara Wessel, a noble woman with a secret, and her husband, the governor general of Batavia.
But no sooner is their ship out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A strange symbol appears on the sail. A dead leper stalks the decks. Livestock are slaughtered in the night.
And then the passengers hear a terrible voice whispering to them in the darkness, promising them three unholy miracles. First: an impossible pursuit. Second: an impossible theft. Third: an impossible murder.
Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?
With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent and Sara can solve a mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board…
— Publisher Synopsis, Bloomsbury (Raven Books)
Rather than a carbon-copy detective couple, Samuel “Sammy” Pipps and Arent Hayes prove to be more a deceptive coupling. With Sammy locked in a dark cell, under suspicion for a crime he is unaware of, and Arent free to roam the ship with intriguing freedoms owed by his stature, especially considering he only boarded to protect Sammy, we see an interesting shift placing the soldier in the spotlight. Arent is far from overtly unwilling when responsibility is thrust upon him, he’s instead competent in using his strengths and justly sceptical of his capabilities especially compared to “the world’s greatest detective”, which is certainly a refreshing perspective. Of course, neither Sammy nor Arent is what he seems, but Turton takes this one step further ensuring the narrative relies on the impact of their distinctive observations, relationships and choices.
Turton has returned with another large cast. Initially, there seemed to be a clear delineation between the few primary characters and those more secondary characters. This remains the case throughout, but those groups certainly become closer throughout before receding again towards the plot’s conclusion. However, such is Turton’s skill that despite this delineation those more secondary characters are just as full of schemes, individualistic values and skills meaning they are far from forgettable. I was also initially worried about the boat setting, simply noticing a theme from my reading habits, but it remained a truly intriguing setting, facilitating the action but never overwhelming the pacing with overly gratuitous details. Turton himself also included an author’s note stating it should not be considered a “boat book” which I found a funny coincidence given my initial scepticism.
You can likely gather that the characters proved to be the highlight of Turton’s narrative. Specifically, I adored the twists and revelations concerning their relationships and personal motivations, but I also simply enjoyed reading their perspectives, desires and the dialogue between them. The blossoming sleuth relationships between Arent and Sara is thoroughly heartwarming as they steadily draw out each other’s strengths. The only niggle I experienced whilst reading was the lack of struggle they experienced in seeking each other out. It would have been interesting to see them navigate mandated separation; however, they struggle through more than enough throughout this narrative, so I’ll forgive them this. I always seem to find one character who I come to love, despite them not having truly expansive development on the page. Lia was this character in Devil and the Dark Water as her intelligence, spirit and curiosity stood out from her snippets of dialogue and I would happily read far more from her perspective. The central group of women easily stood out by correlating their actions, key discussions surrounding their involvement and the parameters of patriarchal-leaning social structures.
Turton’s writing proved highly addictive all over again. The hardback edition features an endorsement quote from Val McDermid which details The Devil and the Dark Water as a ‘mash-up’ between Arthur Conan Doyle and William Golding and, loving ACD and admiring Golding, I can immediately see these influences in Turton’s narrative. However, Turton ensures is characters, revelations and twists crafted through his writing style, which took me straight back to the experience of reading Seven Deaths for the first time, and you will find yourself tearing through this book despite the length which never felt arduous. I agree with M John Harrison’s Guardian review which applauded the pacing of events which occurred before quickly receding into consideration by Arent. All of this results in a fast-plotted narrative with engaging, intriguing characters traversing an expertly crafted journey across the sea.
A final note on the ending, remaining spoiler-free. Based purely on my recollection of reading Seven Deaths I believe the revelations concluding The Devil and the Dark Water flowed far more seamlessly from the preceding narrative. A detective’s declarations to the gathered primary characters, which typically concludes mystery/crime novels, can feel like a division between the before and after. However, The Devil and the Dark Water preserves some of this feeling, but alongside skilfully leading toward a new after. Clarity is certainly provided; however, I don’t think those of you seeking a more open ending will be disappointed either. Turton struck a playful balance between the two in the final pages. I thoroughly enjoyed the concluding revelations. When reading any mystery, crime or thriller novel, several predictions will cross my mind. They normally follow the pattern of isolating the obvious choice before moving on to suspecting everyone else because, frankly, they’re not said obvious choice. However, this certainly leaves some room for disappointment when the author follows the obvious route, or my wildest predictions are proved correct and I predicted them quite a few pages too early. This continues to never be the case in Turton’s writing. Even whilst going through the options mentally, the true ending never occurred to me. This is not from an overly ambitious or tenuous connection on the writer’s part. Everything is connected, rightly, seemingly effortlessly.
Overall, The Devil and the Dark Water certainly lived up to my lofty expectations. With intriguing characters who I fell in love with, an engaging mystery you’ll be tearing your hair out to solve and addictive writing which will make 500 pages fly by Turton returns with triumph. While I preferred the final revelations to Dark Water, I still think the setting of Seven Deaths is my favourite. Meaning I’ll simply have to reread Seven Deaths as I’ve been meaning to for so long and they’ll share an equal spot at the top.
Are you going to be picking up The Devil and the Dark Water? Will you be doing so because you loved The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle or are you looking for something different?
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton was published by Raven Books, Bloomsbury on the 1st of October 2020.
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