The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton combines the macabre with the mind-bending in this intricate historical detective novel. Having loved The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I opened the pages a mixture of excitement and trepidation, but immediately knew that Turton was going to work his sorcery again. Although the plot isn’t as complicated as in Evelyn Hardcastle, the characters are more fully-realised, particularly the female lead, Sara Wessel. Set on a cursed merchant ship sailing from Indonesia to Amsterdam, the story tacks and jibes without losing any its sinister appeal. Demons, shadowy trading companies and cutthroats stalk the narrative and the clever twists kept me bound to the pages.
Note there are no spoilers in this book review.
A murder on the high seas. A detective duo. A demon who may or may not exist.
It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported to Amsterdam to be executed 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.
But no sooner are they out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A twice-dead leper stalks the decks. Strange symbols appear on the sails. Livestock is slaughtered.
And then three passengers are marked for death, including Samuel.
Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?
With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent can solve a mystery that connects every passenger onboard. A mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board.
A Motley Crew
Stuart Turton demonstrated his skill with multiple POVs in The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and handles the cast of players in The Devil and the Dark Water with similar, if not increased expertise. I found it easy to tune into the different voices and each one lent a new dimension to the story. All the characters are flawed, sometimes unpredictably so, yet ultimately every person has a convincing reason for their failings.
Arent Hayes and the captive Samuel Pipps are the charismatic detectives in the story – a sort of Watson and Sherlock Holmes – but the women in the book really stood out for me. Brave, clever and innovative, their strength pervades the pages. Sara Wessel, a noblewoman, takes the lead with a spirit and persistence that drives much of the action.
The mystery takes place on The Sardaam, a merchant vessel owned by the ruthless East India Company. As intricately designed as the narrative, it represents a microcosm of society. The precarious mix of the many hierarchies on the boat adds to the sense of uneasiness. Everyone aboard is trapped at sea in a dirty, ever-shifting hull full of secrets.
The historical details add to the setting. Stuart Turton takes care to describe the unsanitary reality of the boat in detail and interestingly, he based this on a real ship – the Sardam.
Without giving away spoilers, the main subplot is suffused with the supernatural and at times, the plot devices verged more towards horror than mystery. Think of all the classic spooky tropes you know and then add several more to get an idea of all the occult threads running through The Devil and the Dark Water. Some readers might find the idea of demons too creepy, but I loved this aspect of the novel. It fits perfectly with the time period and the setting while deepening the suspense.
Although detective novels aren’t usually my thing, I’m very happy to make an exception for Stuart Turton. He has a satisfying way of managing the reveal through back story and tiny clues. Every chapter offers a fresh answer but never enough to give you the entire solution.
I read this in super-quick time – not only because I enjoyed the story, but also because I hoped that he’d overturn my predictions and present me with a twist that I hadn’t foreseen. Did he succeed? Yes (and a whispered no). As with The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I guessed about 70% but that remaining 30% sealed the deal. Turton got me again.
Saying that, I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that readers coming back for Evelyn Hardcastle won’t necessarily find a natural successor in The Devil and the Dark Water. There are similarities for certain – the pacing, the skulduggery, the shadowy forces behind the scenes – but this next novel, despite all its violence, has a softer feel – maybe because of the strong female element. Plot ruled in The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, whereas in The Devil and the Dark Water, the characters take priority. Stuart Turton has set a new course and I can’t wait to find out where he’s heading next.
- Published: 1st October 2020
- Format: Hardback
- Pages: 576pp
- ISBN: 9781408889640
- Imprint: Raven Books
Many thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for sending me a digital proof copy.
*Note this post includes affiliate links
If you enjoyed this then you might also be interested in our other book reviews: