Here comes a book that kept popping up on blogs and articles about new books, and I was intrigued by the author and the title, so…
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
‘If you read one book this year, make sure it’s this one’ Daily Mail
CHOSEN AS A BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE GUARDIAN, SUNDAY TIMES, DAILY MAIL, FINANCIAL TIMES, DAILY EXPRESS AND i PAPER
WINNER OF THE BOOKS ARE MY BAG READERS AWARD FOR FICTION
SELECTED FOR THE BBC TWO BOOK CLUB BETWEEN THE COVERS AND THE RADIO 2 JO WHILEY BOOK CLUB
An impossible murder
A remarkable detective duo
A demon who may or may not exist
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…
‘A glorious mash-up of William Golding and Arthur Conan Doyle’ Val McDermid
‘A superb historical mystery: inventive, twisty, addictive and utterly beguiling … A TRIUMPH’ Will Dean
From the author of the dazzling The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, winner of the Costa Best First Novel Award, comes an audacious and original new high concept murder mystery.
About the author:
Stuart Turton is a freelance travel journalist who has previously worked in Shanghai and Dubai. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is his debut novel. He is the winner of the Brighton and Hove Short Story Prize and was longlisted for the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines competition. He lives in West London with his wife.
Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and to NetGalley for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.
Although I’d heard about Turton’s first novel, I haven’t read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the comments about it, by the description of his second novel and by its setting to request a copy on NetGalley. I’ve seen The Devil and the Dark Water mentioned in many of the 2020’s lists and that was the final push I required to read it. I enjoyed the novel (what a romp!), although I suspect some readers might find it problematic, and I wouldn’t recommend it without a few words of caution. Also, I read a pretty early ARC copy, with formatting issues, and from some of the more detailed reviews I’ve read it’s evident that there are some added elements I had no access to, and there might be other changes, so I won’t go into too many specifics, to avoid confusing readers of the final published version.
The description above gives plenty of clues as to the plot, and I want to avoid spoilers. I’ve read some reviewers comparing it to a cross between a classical mystery (more Sherlock Holmes than Poirot, in my opinion) with a pirate adventure novel, and that is pretty accurate. It did remind me of an old-fashioned adventure/mystery novel (Dumas, Scott, or even Poe), but also what other authors used to call romance (not in the sense of a love story, although that might play a part as well, but a bit more of a supernatural/”magical” touch, not fitting totally in the fantasy realm or what we understand as magical realism either, but not that far from them), like some of Hawthorne’s novellas and short stories. As is sometimes the case in some of those, there are plenty of flights of fancy, detours and small paths visited, and the story is not written completely in keeping with the modern tenets of avoiding any telling and only including information that is necessary to the furthering of the plot. Quite a few of the negative reviews insisted that the book could have been edited and made much shorter, and the plot would not have suffered, and they were right, but I wasn’t too bothered about that, as I was enjoying the ride. As I came to the end of the novel, what it made me think about the most, was one of those very elaborate magic tricks, where a lot of attention is played to the staging, in order to ensure our attention is misdirected, and we are distracted, losing track of the main action, and therefore being taken by surprise at the grand reveal. I think Turton would be a great magician.
I was curious about the setting of the novel and the fact that it all takes place (or almost all of it) inside a big ship makes this the equivalent of a mystery in a grand mansion, with important twists, as they are even more isolated than the inhabitants of an isolated big house. I recently read and reviewed a modern take on that kind of mystery (Banville’s Snow) and although this is completely different, it proves that the genre keeps inspiring authors, at least to find new ways to subvert it. Even though the novel appears to fit into the historical fiction bracket, the author —on a note not included in the ARC copy I read that I’ve seen mentioned by other readers— has explained it has to be considered fiction and not expected to accurately reflect the era, and it is true that he took too many liberties with the period and even the nautical setting for history buffs or seafaring connoisseurs not to be disappointed if they read it expecting precision. Despite that, there were some general reflections about the colonial enterprise, witch-hunting, wars, and the differences in social order that made the novel go beyond a standard uncomplicated entertaining adventure. That is not to say that any of those subjects were treated in depth, but I felt they added to the story.
I won’t dissect all the characters, as there are far too many (some readers complained that it was difficult to tell them apart, the Dutch names didn’t always help matters, and that was the case as well for the many roles, positions, and aristocratic titles of some of the characters), and not all of them play important parts. Samuel Pipps is, if you want, the Sherlock Holmes of the story, brilliant and incredibly gifted, but not always the best at mixing with people or being sympathetic to their feelings or needs. In the novel, he is locked up due to some accusation, and we hear of him more than get to see him in action, and that means that Arent Hayes, the Dr Watson of the story and the one writing their adventures, gets to be the investigator. He is quite a character, and we learn plenty about him during the book, most of it interesting and some quite surprising. He is the most complex character, and I liked him a lot. Apart from him, I also liked most of the main female characters, especially Sarah and her daughter Lia, who seem to fall into the category of women going beyond their historical role of the period that has become quite popular these days. Isabel was another favourite of mine, especially because she is not of aristocratic blood but has managed to rise by virtue of her effort, her smarts, and her thirst of knowledge, and she can see beyond the stories and rumours that scare others. There are many grey and dark characters as well, some we get to know better than others, some pretty ambiguous, but there are a lot that we don’t learn anything about, because they are little more than a part of the cargo, like the animals or the spices they carried, and far less valuable when it came to the company. That felt quite true to life, although it was not one of the aspects of the story that challenged the genre (and I don’t think that was the aim of the author either).
The story is told from many different points of view, although more attention seems to be paid to Arent and Sarah, but not exclusively. That does not mean that we are given more clues than they are and, in fact, as I’ve said before, there are plenty of distractions, blind alleys, and there are many twists and red herrings that make it easy to lose sight of what is important and what is not. The author manages to draw some vivid pictures in one’s mind, and some of the scenes seem taken from a movie (and I’m sure it would turn into a spectacular one with the right creative team), although as I’ve said, the style is not exactly what many would expect from a modern book. The language is not historically accurate either, but that does not seem to have been the author’s intention. I won’t share any fragments, as I’ve already mentioned that the ARC copy had some issues that I’m sure have been solved in the published version, but I would advise people interested in reading it to check a sample. I found it easy to read in general, but as is the case with many classic mysteries, it’s necessary to remain attentive and try not to miss any clues. I understand from some reviews that the published version of the novel also contains a map of the ship, and I’m sure that would help follow the action and see how some of the scenes connect more easily than by just reading the text.
Did I guess the guilty party? Well, I worked out some of the mysteries involved, but not all, and although I reached the right conclusion pretty close to the end, I wouldn’t say I had dotted all the “i”s and crossed all the “t”s. We do get the expected big reveal scene at the end, so don’t fret too much about having missed anything. Some of the conventions are adhered to, mystery fans will be relieved to hear. The ending is happy (?) although perhaps morally ambiguous, and I know some readers weren’t too pleased about it. I enjoyed the wrapping up of everything (yes, it is far-fetched, but I’ve already said it reminds me of a high-end magic trick, so that’s not surprising), although I’m not so sure about the implications of the actual ending, if one were to take it seriously. But I don’t.
I recommend it to people who aren’t looking for an accurate historical novel but enjoy old-style adventure novels and mysteries, and appreciate more varied and enterprising female characters than tend to be the rule in that genre. Also, to those who don’t mind a touch of the magical and the unexpected (although I don’t think the classification of metaphysical I’ve seen it under is correct) and aren’t after a hard-hitting modern narrative. I am aware that some readers of Turton’s first novel weren’t impressed by this one, although some enjoyed it as well, so you might want to temper your expectations if you have read him before. I can’t comment on it directly, but after reading this one I’m more intrigued to catch up on his debut novel. In sum, it is great fun, especially if you love adventures and don’t take it too seriously.
Thanks to NetGalley, to the publishers, and of course the author, for this fun adventure, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to take care, be safe, and keep reading, reviewing and sharing if you find something you like. ♥