#488: A Murder is Announced – Case for Eight Detectives in The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018) by Stuart Turton

seven death of evelyn hardcastle

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.

people-happy-cheering

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.

pinborough

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.

crowd-of-laughing-people

“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.

25 thoughts on “#488: A Murder is Announced – Case for Eight Detectives in The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018) by Stuart Turton

  1. The time loop story device and ‘zapping’ between characters are reasonably common sights in mystery video games, actually (and in lesser degree, Japanese mystery fiction in general). There’s a whole genre of games that’s basically based on Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, and these games usually have you ‘loop’ back if you make the wrong choice, but this effectively means you take the information you learned in that particular story branch back to the start of the loop, and quite a few detective games make use of that concept, forcing you to go down a certain story branch, learn the information there, loop back and utilize that information to find the correct story route.

    Zapping is not as common, but still not a rare sight. Some games force you to switch the POV character at set points in the story, other allow you to switch at will. In essence, it’s the same as this novel: the player themselves is the protagonist who can change hosts, and is allowed to see the events unfold from various angles (and can interact as different persons with the story). The PS3 game Kamaitachi no Yoru X3 did this really well as a mystery story (the first Kamaitachi no Yoru, localized for iOS as Banshee’s Last Cry is an example of the “normal” digital Choose-Your-Own-Adventure as mentioned above).

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    • The more I hear about these types of video games, the more tempted I am to try and investigate them…but, dude, I do not have the time to get drawn down such a rabbit hole. That interactivity is a fascinating prospect, and I can believe there have been enough attempts at trying it that some of what is produced now is very cleverly constructed and fun to play, but…well, never say never, I guess. I’ll have to win the lottery and give up work first, though.

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    • Thank you, Ho-Ling! This explains why I am only up to page 130 and finding it very hard to continue. No doubt about it, in 2019 narrative information is no longer delivered in the way I’m accustomed to (I am officially an Old Person.) The Seven Deaths… blends GAD conventions with game conventions, and I’m only happy with the former. However, I’ll finish the book — the conceit is clever enough to keep me going. Also, suffering is good for the soul.

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      • Haha, we’re all young at heart here, Heidi — sometimes these newfangled ways just don’t work for us 🙂

        HJopefully the solution to the murder will make the journey worthwhile, but I’m usually one to counsel giving up on books that are causing active suffering — life being too short and all that. Let us know how you get on!

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        • For the record, I gave up not many pages later. I think I might have kept with it if the characters had been more convincing as people, but they weren’t (to me anyway.) Just didn’t care enough about them to struggle through the weird things happening to them. Next mystery stop: Dorothy Cannell’s The Thin Woman.

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          • Yeah, life’s to short if you’re not enjoying yourself. Sorry to hear it wasn’t for you. Hopefully The Thin Woman treats you more considerately…!

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    • Written by someone in the Golden Age, it would undoubtedly be about a third as long and more effective, but I honestly think Turton has done a great job in selling what is at heart a classic piece of detective fiction to a modern audience. He has a good understanding whereof he writes, and while the essential murder isn’t original in the least, the framing and staging of it in this way is doing so much more than simply putting some pungent spices on rotting meat, as more than a few authors I could mention seem to think is acceptable.

      I’m sorry you didn’t get on with it, Nick, because I was reading it thinking “Man, I wonder what Nick would make of this”. Although I suppose you technically have answered that question… 😆

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        • Such is the joy of individual responses to books, eh? When something doesn’t work for you, it just doesn’t work — I’m the same with Innes (though Aidan has me questioning that aftr his post earlier this week…) and Mitchell. Wild horses, and all that… 🙂

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  2. This sounds very interesting to me. I’ll probably be checking this out at some point in the future.

    I wonder if I’ve managed to work out who the protagonist is from the hints in your text. I almost hope so, because otherwise I’ve come up with a pretty good plot which is unfortunate since I am a horrible writer. 🙂

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    • I’m…not aware of having left any hints as to the identity of the protagonist, if anything I’ve gone out of my way not to offer hints, but then that probably means I subconsciously have hinted at something because I always ned to prove how clever I am. Man, my one fatal flaw…

      I think this deserves some attention from classic detection fans, despite not appearing to fit the bill too closely. It’s a very smart updating of the detection plot, and I do sincerely hope it’s not the last we see form Turton in this genre. He’s not trying to offer some commentary on the process like Athony Horowitz’s Daniel Hawthorne books, he’s just finding a slightly different way to tell a clever murder mystery story — and the world could always use more clever murder mystery stories!

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  3. Jamie reviewed this over a year ago, and the concept was so appealing – I’m a sucker for any sort of “Groundhog Day” type of story – that I ordered it immediately from The Book Depository. I must have been one of the first Americans to own it. I really tried to read it, but it seemed to take days for the main character to stop reeling from what was happening and to get down to business! You yourself refer to this book as “so damn long,” and once a book starts to grate, you have to put it down.

    That’s not to say I won’t try again. It’s not a book you can take up and put down a lot without getting lost, and when I’m working this is unfortunately how I read much of the time. I need a stretch of time, like summer vacation, to have another go.

    It’s too bad, though: I really wanted to be one of the first to write about it, and the ambition of it still appeals to me, even if I wish someone would rub my shoulders and say, “You can do it, man!” as I read. Oh well, I figure that by the time I finish it, Stuart Turton will have shown up in this comments section to thank you and become your next best friend. That seems to happen a lot to you . . .

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    • I was fortunate to have cleared some time in which to read it — it’s significantly longer than my usual fare, and so I knew it wasn’t going to be a one-sitting read (not that I have many of them these days, damn obligations and failing eyesight mumble mumble). So, yeah, clear some time and come back to it — maybe on the plane over in June.

      If nothing else, it’s one of those books that wears a Christie badge which isn’t entirely undeserved, and for that reason alone I’d love to know your thoughts on it.

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  4. I may the only person who loathes this book. It’s sadistic and in the end all about punishment.

    I thought the whole thing was going to turn out to be a video game. Ho Ling’s observations are exactly what I was thinking while reading this. I was also reminded of Cronenberg’s movie Existenz. Role playing and body changing is so much part of the video game world. That “solution” made more sense to me and would for me have given an excuse (if I can use that word) for the excessive and grotesque amount of killing. I wish it had ended that way.

    Those “twenty wasted pages” you want to forget about are the entire point of the book. Those pages may have ruined your reading experience but to dismiss them is to excuse the writer’s inherent cynicism. It’s so easy to be dazzled by the plot and the construction and be blinded what’s right in front of you.

    I agree the book is a marvel of plot construction and ingenuity. I was at first marveling at it all just like everyone else. But Turon’s worldview is nihilistic. And for me that ruins everything. No matter how much Adrian invests in saving characters violent death intrudes. Someone *must* be savagely murdered. Each time he tries to prevent an horrible outcome that masked figure intrudes with another assassination. This is not an emulation of the And Then There We’re None conceit of the executioner punishing people for amorality and crimes overlooked. It’s a lot more ugly, sadistic and pessimistic — Punishment for wanting to be good.

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    • Oh, I didn’t intend to imply that it’s the final twenty pages I’d like to dismiss — it’s more a general observation that there are throughout the book perhaps that many wasted pages of needless dialogue, actions, etc.

      As I say, I’d probably ike it more were the explanations for it simply not given in the manner of Fire, Burn — there would surely be sufficient opportunity for our protagonist to simply want to solve the murder…and wake up the “next” morning only to realise, as he does here, that it’s the same days again. And so he sets out to prevent it. No explanation as to why, it just happens that way.

      I’m interested, too, John, in the idea that people are repeatedly dying.

      THIS VEERS VERY CLOSE TO SPOILERS AND SO DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT THE BOOK SPOILED II@M NOT KIDDING SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

      I had sort of imagined that, given the explanation we get, the whole thing was some sort of simulation, and the Plague Doctor is simply an admin who manages what goes on without being aware of the ins and outs. That way, each day is simply a “resetting” of the program — like the Matrix vrossed with a video game, I guess: everyone else is part of the programming and PD, Anna, Aiden, and the other guys whose name I forget are the only real people in there.

      See Aiden’s abortive trip to the “village”, etc — I’d never imagined this was actually taking place in real space. Interesting.

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    • Finally! I agree with prettysinister. I was sickened by the constant physical mutilations/punishments etc. got old very very quickly for me. Hated the storyline, didn’t like tne ending. I thought this book was an ’emperor has no clothes’….it got so much hype & praise before it hit the shelves so everyone just jumped on the bandwagon praising it. Can’t tell you on how many levels i hated the book. So glad i read a library copy & didn’t waste my money on it. Wish i had not wasted my precious time reading it. My advice is, don’t waste yours.

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  5. Thanks for the review, which I was keen to read, as I had finished the book quite a few months ago, prior to a review appearing on a blog I regularly read. 😊 I recall not being impressed by the whole backstory: the pseudo fantasy/supernatural dimension to what was essentially a classic puzzle-mystery. But I still liked it as a classic puzzle-mystery, even though it was two or three times longer than the fiction I tend to read. 😅

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    • I hear ya on the length of it — I found it an easy read, but jeepers didn’t I ever feel like the books I normally read don’t really count 🙂 Surely we must be done by now? Nope, only page 250…

      And then I went from this to a 560-page SF epic which was perhaps not the best decision, since that turned out to be a real drag.

      It stands to reason that we classic detective fiction nerds aren’t going to be sold on the backstory, and it’s the weakest part of the whole thing for me, but — and hear me out — this is going to convince a lot more people to try detective fiction, and that can only be a good thing…!

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  6. Shoot, you made me put this on my list. I’m a bit of a sucker for a few of the elements that you mentioned, and can’t resist. But 500+ pages? Yeesh. Even the best Carr/Christie/Brand story would have to be dragging at that point…

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    • I had my doubts, but sometimes you just have to jump in and see what happens. I cleared a week for reading it in case it dragged, and then blitzed through it in two days.

      I’d counsel not dismissing it entirely; keep it on the back burner of your mind, just in case the spirit takes you at some point…

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  7. Really glad you enjoyed this so much JJ. The person who recommended it sounds like they have impeccable taste!
    😀
    I wholeheartedly agree this is not a book without its faults- the first being the length. As with almost all modern novels, it’s overlong. However, I’m prepared to forgive a lot of faults for the insanely intricate clockwork plot, and the (generally) excellent writing, as you noted in your review. When so many contemporary novels (of any genre) are either blandly written, or uneventful, or both, to have a mystery novel that is really well written and packed with incident is a gift. And to have a very good mystery plot too is the icing on the (admittedly too big) cake.
    It’s a novel that demands an investment in time, and a bit of patience as the many wheels of the plot get into motion. But once it gets up to speed, it’s a delight. I can’t wait to see what the author comes up with next.

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    • I really enjoyed the milieu, which I think is what kept me going on the handful of occasions I thought Turton was losing his grip a little — there’s something postmodern about the day in which he tries to flee the house and how that’s used to refocus attention on solving the murder. I was desperate for things not to take in the wider world, so obviously embraced the slightly forced flase framing of the whole thing. Great fun.

      I sincerely hopes he stays in the genre, because he got the murder scheme exactly right this time around and Im hopeful he has other canny plans up his sleeve. Time will tell, but if his next book is about the growing pains and awkwardness of adolescence I’ll be fuming 😆

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  8. John/Pretty Sinister more or less sums up what I thought, though perhaps I wasn’t quite as vehement as he was: but I do agree, the book lacks moral framework. It is clever, and good for him, and I’m glad so many people liked it. But not for me. I kept hoping throughout that he was going to redeem it, but the ending was the opposite of redeeming in my view. Also the world he created did NOT, contrary to some claims, seem very real, full of strange unlikelihoods in the manners and vocabulary. eg ‘hunting’ and ‘shooting’ are not the same thing in the milieu he describes, and everyone consistently gets it wrong. I know I am fussy about those things, but the then I am stuck with thinking ‘is that supposed to be a clue or what?

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    • I’m still wondering how much this was actually based in the real world — given the revelation about why it’s all happening, is [SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS] any of it actually real? Sure, Turton never makes a claim either way, and I’m not using this to counteract your point about perceived falseness, I’m just…massively curious!

      This is what happens when you only give some answers — give them all or give them none, says I!

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