Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, was one of my favorite reads of 2018, a compulsively readable and wildly original murder mystery, an homage to Agatha Christie, with a science fictional wrapper. Turton’s second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water (2020), is a highly twisty and eerie Sherlockian mystery, set in the seventeenth century on a large ship traveling from Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) to Amsterdam. At first glance it’s not much at all like 7½ Deaths, except in the intricacy of the plot … and the way it mixes together different genres, and the vivid and complex characters who are far more than they first appear, and the insightful and subtle writing … well, perhaps his two books have more in common than I first thought.
The noble passengers who board the Saardam in Batavia in 1634 include Governor General Jan Haan, a ruthless leader who has been called back to Amsterdam to join the wealthy Dutch East India Company’s ruling body, the “Gentleman 17.” Haan’s entourage includes his deeply dissatisfied wife Sara Wessel, their bright young teenage daughter Lia, and Haan’s lovely and accomplished mistress Creesjie. Haan is also bringing along a manacled prisoner, a renowned and brilliant detective named Samuel Pipps, together with Pipps’ assistant and sometimes bodyguard Arent Hayes. Pipps is under sentence of death, to be carried out once they reach Amsterdam, though Pipps swears he has no idea why, and Haan isn’t saying. Haan is also packing a large, heavy box on the trip, holding something mysterious and extremely valuable, described only as the Folly.
Before the Saardam even sets sail, a shocking event occurs: a leper loudly warns the passengers and crew that the devil will also be sailing with them, and that the ship will never reach Amsterdam. When the leper perishes in flames and examination of the dying man discloses that his tongue was cut out, suspicion and fear begin to percolate and spread. Samuel Pipps is interested in solving this apparent murder, but since he’s locked in a tiny, foul cell on the ship, he’ll need the help of Arent to do it. Arent fears that he isn’t cut out for this work, but finds help from an unexpected person. They’re a rare source of light and good on a cursed ship where the crew is vicious, the passengers untrustworthy, and the devil “Old Tom” appears to hold sway.
For much of The Devil and the Dark Water, it’s unclear whether this is a supernatural fantasy or a secular whodunit, or both. Inexplicable events occur, Old Tom whispers enticingly to passengers to assist in his evil plans, and it’s easy for the characters and the reader to believe that something wicked and unworldly is at work.
But Turton takes his time weaving this story, pulling in characters’ backstories that both illuminate and mystify, and twining in social issue threads of inequality, sexism, and capitalistic greed.
The rich mistakenly believed their wealth was a servant, delivering them whatever they wanted.
They were wrong.
Wealth was their master, and it was the only voice they heeded. Friendships were sacrificed at its behest, principles trampled to protect it. No matter how much they had, it was never enough. They went mad chasing more until they sat lonely atop their hoard, despised and afraid.
The pacing bogs down at times with all the details and complexities, but Turton’s skillful writing pulls the reader into this tale. He gives clever nods to Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Treasure Island, and many other tropes of various genres, while breathing fresh life into them. With all the horror, greed, vengefulness and general darkness that haunts the ship and the people aboard it, they — and we — can still find reasons to hope for something better. It’s a marvelous story.