While I don’t quite share the optimism of my fellow impossible crime aficionado TomCat that a second Golden Age of detective fiction is on the horizon, there can be no denying that some great neo-orthodox detective novels have been written in recent years by the likes of James Scott Byrnside, Anthony Horowitz, and (with a heavy emphasis on the neo) Stuart Turton.
Turton’s debut, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018), was a time-travellin’, body-swappin’ SF novel that also happened to have both feet firmly rooted in the Country House Mystery of yore and — amidst all the effective genre-melding — fundamentally delivered a solid mystery with some good clues and legitimate detection. Those of us who take our Golden Age a little too seriously might have had doubts going in, but it’s a great premise explored very intelligently and, bonus, must surely be one of the few 500+ page books published in the genre that actually needs to be over five hundred pages. Suffice to say, we all sat back and eagerly awaited what Turton was going to do next.
What he has done next is The Devil and the Dark Water (2020) which, if we wish to maintain a suitable degree of ignorance for anyone who has not yet read it, is going to be even harder to pigeon-hole from a genre perspective. I’m going to work hard to not give too much away here, too, because while there certainly are rational explanations to elements of this — the locked room murder, say, which it might be frustrating to have explained via supernatural means, so rationalists and impossible crime fans are reassured on that point — there’s a certain element of not knowing what you’re getting, and how much is rational, that is key to getting the most out of this.
Aspects of the explanation of Evelyn Hardcastle’s multiple demises veered into SF in a way that Golden Age writers were never too worried about explaining — the classic example here being Fire, Burn! (1957) by John Dickson Carr, in which a man is sent back in time from the present day to solve a murder at the dawn of the Metropolitan Police Force because, well, what sort of explanation would satisfy someone there? As such, it might well be that Turton’s ship-bound demon here turns out to actually be demonic, or some ghostly occurrences might have a supernatural origin. And, y’know what? Not knowing ahead of time is at least half the fun. Yes, I love knowing when a detective novel is straight detection but sometimes, as I have opined before, not knowing can be even better.
Our story here is set in a version of 1634 — there’s a very charming afterword in which Turton apologises for his historical inaccuracies — and sees detective Samuel Pipps being shipped back in disgrace from Batavia in the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam. Precisely what that disgrace is will become apparent in time, but it’s mainly the framing device that gets Pipps, his faithful Watson/protector Arent Hayes, and various others onto a boat and out to sea. Because once out at sea, for reasons and by ways that you’re better of discovering for yourself, the fleet, and the Saardam upon which most of the action centres in particular, finds itself at the mercy of the demon known as Old Tom and all manner of shit hits fans that probably weren’t invented at this point in history.
Among the multifarious, eerie happenings we have the repeated appearances of a leper, the whispering of Old Tom’s voice heard throughout the ship as he tempts people to his cause, and three promised miracles: the impossible pursuit of the fleet by a boat whose lantern is seen out on the water at night at yet disappears when approached, the impossible vanishing of the mysterious cargo smuggled aboard by the Governor General Jan Haan, and an impossible murder by means of stabbing in a watched cabin. Reduced to a couple of sentences in that way, these events are inevitably robbed of their atmosphere and the sense of creeping dread the pervades the book, but Turton’s escalation of complexity in bringing us the baffling effect of these events on a whole shipload of people is both marked and very successful.
This is helped by some great prose, covering not just character introductions…
Cargo was being lowered into the hold through hatches in the deck, as insults were traded, blame assigned for tasks gone awry. The loudest voice belonged to a dwarf dressed in slops and a waistcoat, who was spitting names from the passenger manifest held in the crook of his arm. He put Arent in mind of a lightning-blasted tree stump, such was his stature and width, the roughness of his weathered skin and the strange sense of disaster he carried about him.
…but also charting the proto-Holmes/Watson dynamic that has sprung up between Hayes and Pipps in the five years they’ve been together:
For the most part, they investigated thefts and murders, crimes long committed and easily understood. It was like arriving at the theatre after the performance had ended and being asked to work out the story using pieces of discarded script and the props left on stage. But here was a crime not yet undertaken; a chance to save lives rather than avenge them. Here, at last, was a case worthy of Sammy’s talents.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle took in multiple perspectives but, since they were effectively shells occupied by the same person, presented less a multiplicity of views than might be suspected. Here, Turton juggles differing perspectives of events from not just Hayes’ view but also that of Haan’s wife Sara Wessel, finding herself “bred for sale and fattened like a calf with manners and education” and sold for a dowry into an unloving marriage and trapped in a society that dismisses its womenfolk to the point of subjugation where “[d]eference was something she was supposed to put on every morning, along with her cap and bodice”.
Sammy Pipps may be the only detective on board — though he prefers the term “problematary”, which I love — but as he spend most of his time locked in a cell it’s Sara Wessel and Hayes who will do most of the heavy lifting for the majority of the book, along with Sara’s prodigiously talented daughter Lia and Creesjie Jens who, while Sara’s closest friend, is also the mistress of Jan Haan. One could choose to take issue with this ‘sisters doin’ it for themselves’ vibe, but if anything it falls more into the classic pattern of the detective being the outsider, able to use their gifts or perspective to achieve a result that has been beyond those too close to the problem to want to see it fixed:
They were each going about this investigation in their own fashion, using the tools given to them by God. Sammy observed, Creesjie flirted and Lia invented. Sara asked questions and Arent was going to fight, same as he always had.
Indeed, there’s a great commentary here on such talents being so highly prized, in a world where people who “didn’t know how to stitch a sail or tack the ship” and “were rich because their families were rich” and whose “children would be rich because they were rich. On and on in an endless loop”, the only currency that can be brought to bear is less the promises of Old Tom which prove so tempting and more the clear-sighted capability to see what others simply will not. This is explored through one character in a manner I’ll leave up to the reader to encounter this book, but also in the detective archetype Pipps represents:
Here was a commoner, born with nothing, who’d upended the natural order by virtue of his cleverness. In pursuit of his goal, he’d accuse a noble as readily as a peasant. Here was somebody for whom the old rules didn’t apply. Through Sammy, Arent saw the world he aspired to, like a distant land spied through a smudged glass. Sammy was what Arent had left home to find…
From that perspective, then, it’s a shame that we see so little actual detection. We’re told of the cases of Pipps’ that Hayes has written up and had published in various newspapers, and Pipps makes some observations early on that he frankly admits are lucky guesses…and then much of what results ends up being very light on the actual methods and modes of achieving an answer to a problem through application of close attention (it’s fitting, too, how the Folly — I’ll not tell you what it is, you’ll know when you’ve read the book — is equally…unexplained and unexplainable). Turton, leaning hard on Sherlock Holmes (“Most of [Pipps’ cases] he solves after a few minutes, then he sulks because he’s bored, so he spends the money he earned indulging any vice that’s near at hand.”) might have feared too much the pastiche, but it feels a missed opportunity to make a famous detective with lots of notable cases under his belt a character in your ‘mysterious things are happening’ novel and then not set him loose upon them.
Away from the pursuit of answers, Turton makes a great job of the atmosphere of the Saardam, where below-deck passengers and crew live cheek-by-jowl, the former appalled at the unpleasantness of their accommodations and the latter with somehow even less to their name and, oftentimes, more in their past that they wish to evade which, in turn, makes for a mix of tempers and criminal tendencies that gives rise to all manner of problems given how difficult it can be to get away from each other:
The only way to command such men was through fear. Drecht would have to know which offences to turn a blind eye to and which insults required blood. If Drecht didn’t kill him, if he didn’t defend the honour these men didn’t have, they’d call it weakness. For the next eight months, he’d be fighting to get back even a pinch of the authority he’d boarded with.
This makes the book longer than it needs to be, but the additional perspectives are equally superbly valid in feeling the febrile air that the rumours and actions of Old Tom give rise to. If Seven Deaths… was a Country House Mystery, Devil gives you plenty of time to reflect on what’s happening belowstairs…
The downtrodden yearned for stories to explain their misfortunes, though what they really wanted was somebody to blame for their misery. It was impossible to set fire to the blight that had ruined your crops, but a blight was easily summoned by a witch, at which point any poor woman would do.
So, what of it as a mystery?
To address the impossibilities first, I don’t really know how impossible I’d say they are. The circumstances inevitably make thorough investigation difficult, and therefore much of what you’re told is also dissatisfying for being withheld until the answers were ready to be revealed. The disappearing cargo and watched room stabbings are borderline for that reason: without more information, you don’t know they weren’t attainable (and, indeed, the stabbing could have been done in at least two other ways…one of which is briefly hinted at, the other not even that). I like the watched room stabbing, though, and it works into the narrative more clearly than another murder elsewhere whose workings are left frustratingly vague. The leper, the vanishing ship, the whispering voices…these, I don’t feel qualify — they’re mysterious, and woven into a design of commendable intricacy, the complexity of which few others would have the skill to take on, but they’re not as disconcertingly impossible as the word should make us believe. This does not sell itself purely on the impossibilities, and I didn’t read it for that, but anyone coming purely for those will be a little disappointed.
With so much going on elsewhere, and with so much genuine suspense around how rational some of it will or will not be, there’s a lot for Turton to tie up and/or dismiss in a satisfactory manner. The final 50 pages are dense in explanations and show a lot of moving parts that aren’t quite as neatly imbricated as I would have hoped…but, in all honesty, I can’t fault the man for wanting to over-design an engine of this complexity. Bits of it rely on luck, bits of it seem to rely on too much stretching or compacting of timelines, but as a work of imaginative fiction that keeps you guessing and answers everything you want I think you’ll struggle to find much better being written today.
It’s possibly on account of this big-picture approach that the little details which would make this more satisfying get a little neglected. The ‘ladder’, say, is treated as a completely attainable objective, and the revelation in the final line of chapter 10 would…not be an easy thing to achieve. My feeling is that something with this big an engine works better when all the parts operate independently while also providing a piece of the grander scheme (think of — or, indeed, read — The Madman’s Room (1990, tr. 2017) by Paul Halter, which is smaller in scale but no less delicately balanced). That some of the chronology feels a little garbled when explained — and not least on account of the Sudden Knox Decalogue point that comes out of nowhere and…wouldn’t work, surely…?) — is possibly down to this sense of events needing to happen rather than being meaningful per se, and this leaves a bit of a sour taste where some of the consequences appear to have not been fully considered. You have to plant trees if you want a forest, and sometimes you have to find the land, secure funding, and make sure there’s appropriate access for the contractors, too.
I’ll willingly concede, however, that I’m at fault for hankering after a style of storytelling that went out of vogue 80 years ago. If you want to gaze upon the visage of trying to baffle out ulterior motives to confounding events, The Devil and the Dark Water is possibly the most satisfying book of that type that 2020 will provide. It is rich, complex, long on character and plot, and debouches its revelations with a talent for invention that makes me hope there’s much more to come from Stuart Turton’s mind. It’s not quite the Golden Age puzzler I would have liked, but then it’s also not the Golden Age any more, is it?
Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts: