For once, I, on my blog typically concerned with titles from some 60 to 80 years ago, am allowing external factors to influence me here. Not just in looking at a book published during my own lifetime (that happens not infrequently) but one that’s been in the news of late, too.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018) is the debut novel by Stuart Turton, and recently won the Costa First Novel Award. Now, between you and me, while Costa and I may disagree on coffee, we tend to see eye-to-eye on their literary picks and so such an accolade — coupled with the assurance from someone whose opinions I trust that “it is undoubtedly one of the most intricately plotted mystery novels ever written” — caught my eye. With its country house murder, historical crimes that may or may not have a bearing on current events, and cast of suspicious types all doubtless up to some kind of farouche misdeeds this fits firmly into the wheelhouse of the GAD enthusiast…and yet the trappings and framings that inform the plot might be sufficiently weird to give anyone after a traditional mystery what is colloquially known as ‘the willies’.
So, to deal with that first, in my estimation The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle definitely gives you a traditional GAD country house murder. There’s a two-page postscript in this paperback edition in which Turton traces the origins of this novel back to being given Agatha Christie novels to read by a neighbour when he was eight years old (“Maybe she thought every working-class kid should read about posh people being murdered”), and it’s one of the few modern crime novels I’ve picked up that cites Christie and actually delivers a plot that is worthy of Christie herself — not just in the switchback of expectations, but in the way clues are scattered in actions, conversation, and brazenly flung about in narrative to the extent that you’re kicking yourself for simply accepting something you really should have questioned. On this evidence, it is sincerely to be hoped that Turton has a long career of this sort of thing ahead of him, because for a debut this is startlingly accomplished, even once you take the framing out of things.
I feel these guys have been overlooked of late.
And so, that framing.
It’s almost a shame to discuss this, because the idea is brilliant, and the chapter in which you realise what is going on manages to communicate all the necessaries with a startling brevity. Nevertheless, you’re not getting your typical Genius Amateur Detective yarn here, so it’s understandable that people will talk about this side of things. In essence, the story is told eight times, from the perspective of a man who wakes up each morning in the body of a different person associated with the party taking place at the Hardcastle family pile Blackheath, and who is charged with solving the imminent murder of their daughter Evelyn. Each morning he wakes up in a different host, retaining the knowledge of the previous day’s activities, and must relive the day again from a new perspective while accruing the various clues that will allow him to solve Evelyn’s murder. For reasons I will leave you to discover, he has a mere eight days in which to achieve this, after which…well, I’ll say no more.
The easy comparison to make is with the Harold Ramis movie Groundhog Day (1993), in which Bill Murray’s weatherman relives the same day over and over, but that doesn’t quite apply here. For sheer nerd points I’d actually liken it more to a mixture of the repeating-the-same-day TV movie 12:01 (1993) — an expansion of the short film 12:01 pm (1990), based on the 1973 Richard A. Lupoff short story of the same name — with a liberal mix of Akira Kurosawa’s crime-from-different-perspectives masterpiece Rashomon (1950) and the fractured narrative of Joel Townsley Rogers’ first-person-impossible-crime novel The Red Right Hand (1945). The thriller aspects of the first are a closer fit than the loose comedy of the more famous fim, and the varying perspectives of Rashomon come into play as out narrator hops from person to person, seeing how each incarnation is treated differently by those around him. And where Rogers cuts up a simple plot and presents it out of order to add confusion, Turton’s plot is told in order but experienced out of order (you’ll see what I mean) and yet retains a complexity that a more linear telling would in no way dispel.
Also, because I intend to call this out every time I encounter it, please despair at Sarah Pinborough’s claim on the back cover that this is “a locked room mystery like no other”. No, Sarah, it’s not. It’s not a locked room mystery. Can publishers please stop lying to people like this? Press quotes that are a matter of opinion are one thing, but if I called this a “piquant coming-of-age tale about youth, beauty, and the importance of family” I’d be about as accurate as that claim.
Pictured: a misuse of the English language.
Anyhoo. Thankfully Turton doesn’t allow himself to get too hamstrung by bootstrap paradoxes — if an early host knows something because a later host tells it to him, the only reason he knows it is because he told it to himself…and he only knew to do that because he did it to begin with (hang on, Basil, I’ve gone cross-eyed…) — and for the most part this is simply an excellently-written murder mystery. Each of the hosts’ faculties are available to our narrator as he inhabits them — the bravery of one, the logical reasoning of another, the devil-may-care attitude of a third — and each personality’s traits allow actions in their respective days that contribute something to the investigation.
An excellent job is done in capturing the different physical and mental traits of these hosts, and it’s supremely to Turton’s credit that they remain distinct in the mind and narrative for the actions they perform. From a wastrel pampered rich boy who’d “throw a punch at the sun because it burned him” to the surprise felt at the depth of longing one of his hosts feels when hearing the orchestra play, each is caught cleanly and distinctly, so that you never question the gradual sense of our narrator losing himself under the weight of this slowly-gathering chorus:
[He] hates people who try to deceive him, considering it a suggestion of gullibility, of stupidity. To even attempt it, liars must believe themselves to be cleverer than the person they’re lying to, an assumption he finds grotesquely insulting.
The narrator, while succumbing at times to the actions and the will of the people he is possessing, is also a distinct voice amidst the actions that should be pre-determined (it’s the same day time and again, after all) and yet feel organic even as they fall into accepted, pre-written patterns. “I study her face for a lie, but I might as well be turning a microscope on a patch of fog,” he laments at one point, having already likened this seemingly-impossible task to “[being] asked to dig a hole with a shovel made of sparrows”. We know very little of him — we get his name fairly early on, it’s even on the back cover though I’m choosing not to reveal it for reasons that elude me now — and to a certain extent I would have been happy to know nothing more about him than he is able to tell us. With no memory of his life before Blackheath there’s something not unlike John Dickson Carr’s time travel yarn Fire, Burn! (1957) going on here — man dumped in past to solve crime (though it’s not necessarily the past, Turton’s again very clever in not pinning the party down to any definitive time period) — and I’d’ve been perfectly happy to forgo the late explanation that fills in the wherefores of the situation he’s in. I suppose that’s a modern expectation, but as explanations go it clarifies as much as it mystifies and the book would be no weaker for taking Carr’s route and simply not explaining it.
“Who are we? Why are we here?”
A large cast is also handled very well indeed, their intermingled relationships revealing a shifting picture as we encounter them through new eyes — a seemingly sympathetic ear gets re-evaluated once it is learned how friendly he is with someone venal, the sense of kinship with another guest comes under examination for how differently she treats out narrator in a new skin. The sense of these people as people is put across with a beautiful lightness of touch: a doctor who “smells of brandy, but cheerfully so, as though every drop went down smiling”, a difficult topic in conversation broached “with the sense of a man unpacking a trunk filled with sharp objects”, a mother and son’s mutual loathing and self-dependency covered in that fact that whatever darkness is to be found in the latter was “tucked in at night” by the former…time and again Turton brings brevity to his insights, giving what could easily be a book full of stock types bent purely to the will of their author’s brilliant idea instead a sense of breath in their lungs, of life beyond these pages, and of the complex interpersonal permutations that reach far beyond this dazzlingly-parsed puzzle.
It doesn’t all work, the odd simile falling flat — “he looks at me as though I’m a priest demanding confession” — and some heavy-handed reflections on ethics and morality weirdly inserting themselves early in the second half (for no more than a page, but, man what a weird page…). Also, where those explanations for what’s happening are concerned, there’s an explicit statement made by our narrator towards the very end that, unfortunately, seems to dismiss the entire purpose of this undertaking and thus render it all, well, obsolete. I can understand what Turton is going for, but it’s one of those sentiments that looks beautiful while wrapped up in a gorgeous box and surrounded by artful tissue paper, and then you unpack it a little more and realise that something is really quite terribly wrong and, holy hell, how did no-one raise this before the book was published? It’s arguable I’m over-thinking it, and I only care so much because of how fully I got involved in the process this book asks you to invest in, but I didn’t buy that aspect and this may explain why I think an absence of explanation would work far better.
However, given the complexity of what Turton has taken on here, and given the tendency of debut authors to over-write ther prose, and especially given how dman long this thing is, there’s a very confident hand steering it all with a real paucity of redundancy. For a 505-page book to have only maybe twenty wasted pages is no mean feat. The lightness of touch in how this subverts expectations while also playing perfectly into them — the first encounter with Gregory Gold, for instance — should hopefully assuage the fears of those who might feel this is both too traditional (those who shy away from Christie and her ilk as overly posed, poised, and unrealistic) and not traditional enough (the discerning people in the room, with excellent taste and high standards). I’m a fan of the traditional GAD concepts herein, and I loved this for how it applies them in a way that’s both new and old. And, man, plotting it must have been several headaches to the power of headache.
I’m fascinated to see what Turton does next, and I hope he stays in the GAD-inspired firmament. There’s a hint late on that this is simply part of an MCU-style larger universe in which the same thing is happening with different crimes, and there’s a bit of me that would love to see him do the same thing again with a slightly different focus, even if that would raise accusations of his being a one-trick pony. Whatever happens, believe me: Turton has tricks up his sleeve that you’ll delight in seeing, and for every misdirection you see through, three or four are waiting to blindside you. Yes, that’s at least in part because this isn’t strictly fair play and so he’s able to force some conclusions into gaps they fit purely because he leans on them especially hard, but this is a dauntingly brilliant debut, beautifully told, and the potential on display is very exciting. “What kind of mind makes theatre of murder?” our narrator laments at one point. Only the best and sharpest, I’d wager, and Stuart Turton hopefully has much more sharpening to offer us.