1634. The Dutch East Indies. The vessel Saardam prepares for its journey to Amsterdam.
At the advent of the voyage’s crossing, a shocking mystery is laid before the reader – a leper decries the vessel and curses all those on board before spontaneously bursting into flames. When the leper is recovered, his tongue is missing and long since cut out, making his prophecy all the more perplexing, particularly when shadowy events start to plague the ship.
So opens The Devil and the Dark Water, the sophomore novel from Stuart Turton, whose 2018 debut The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, a time-bending murder mystery which – no spoilers – had one foot squarely planted in Being John Malkovich territory and the other in Groundhog Day, and which subsequently became a runaway success.
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It would have been easy for Turton to remain in this high-concept vein, but fortunately he chose to do the opposite, as The Devil and the Dark Water is firmly a historical mystery, albeit one with a well-constructed, layered cast of characters, and a more forbidding sense of doom than one is used to when examining your standard mystery.
Mysteries, therefore, seem to be Turton’s strength if this tome is anything to go by, as he proves a talent at slowly unspooling the conceits and clues of the story, the main thread of which is that of renowned sleuth Samuel Pipps, in chains for a mysterious crime, being transported across the sea to Amsterdam to answer for his actions.
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Accompanying him are a coterie of characters – a bellicose governor, his mistress and their children, a religious zealot and his wan acolyte, a mysterious noble confined to her cabin. However, while you may initially suspect Pipps to be the book’s protagonist, that role is neatly split between Arent Hayes, the mercurial Pipps’ loyal assistant and a hulking behemoth of a man, and Sara Wessel, the beleaguered yet intelligent and spirited wife of the governor and mother to his only daughter.
This approach works well in keeping Pipps’ deductive talents largely off-screen, but also in fleshing out two potentially-peripheral characters and giving them the active role and agency that the novel requires. Even small touches help create such a fun coterie of players. Turton’s usage of symbolism lends extra shadow and dimension to his characters such as Pipps, who is referred to as ‘the sparrow’ by fans of his impressive intellect, and finds himself compared to ‘a bird with a broken wing’ when a standoff goes wrong.
Turton is, if nothing else, a talent at slowly unspooling his mysteries and giving them a chance to breathe. For those who might have been a little confused by Evelyn Hardcastle’s approach, this is a little more straightforward and accessible as the reader explores the ship through Arent and Sara’s eyes, experiencing both the thrill when a clue is revealed or terror when something chilling and downright impossible takes place. Turton doesn’t scrimp on the horror here – voices and visions alike are suitably haunting – but it remains, ostensibly, a mystery through and through.
Ultimately, The Devil and the Dark Water is a satisfying, if slightly overlong read, that manages to indulge in tastes bloodthirsty and brain-twisting alike, and that leaves you both pleasantly surprised at journey’s end and eagerly awaiting whatever mystery Stuart Turton can concoct next…
The Devil and the Dark Water is out on 1st October from Raven Books.