His debut, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, won the 2018 Costa Best First Novel Award, and this, Raven Books' biggest publication for 2020, is the much-anticipated follow-up. The year is 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world's greatest detective, is being transported, with his bodyguard, from the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam, where he is to face trial. As soon as the ship sets sail, strange and terrifying things start to happen, and then, in the darkness, a voice starts whispering to the passengers, promising them three unholy miracles...
Are the bloody happenings the result of human agency or — as is suspected — a demon with the name of “Old Tom”? There’s no suspense over the first question: Turton has produced something every bit as unorthodox as its predecessor, a genre-sampling epic that sets outrageous traps for the reader and builds an atmosphere of dread up to an operatic final twist.
His second book is an even more exuberant demonstration of his storytelling skills. In 1634 the governor of Batavia in the Dutch East Indies and his entourage set sail for Amsterdam. Danger, possibly supernatural in origin, soon threatens the voyage. Murders occur; strange symbols appear on the sails; a voice in the night whispers threats and promises. Responsibility for throwing light on the darkness falls to the governor’s wife and to Arent Hayes, bodyguard to Samuel Pipps, the brilliant investigator whom the governor has imprisoned in the ship’s depths.
Like in his bestselling debut novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, there are red herrings galore, and Stuart Turton carries the reader through his fantastical plot with irrepressible narrative glee.
Once the Saardam is at sea, strange symbols start appearing, whispers are heard through the crowded decks, the livestock are slaughtered, and then a man is murdered. “The Saardam is doomed,” says the captain. “We all know what’s been happening on this ship, what stalks us in the dark water.” Pipps’s bodyguard Arent Hayes investigates, with the help of his imprisoned master, and Turton has a fantastic time laying out the details of his intricate plot, leaving the reader wondering if it is something human or supernatural causing the devilry on the Saardam. Tons of swashbuckling fun.
I enjoyed Turton’s inventive debut The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and his rollercoaster second book is also full of neat twists and nifty clues. There are some great villains – the callous Governor-General Jan Haan with his “empty, ink-blot eyes”, the violent Guard Captain Jacobi Drecht, the scheming Chief Merchant Reynier van Schooten – and terrific heroes, especially the gentle (and gory) giant Hayes...
Over 550 pages, The Devil and the Dark Water overflows with wonderful descriptions, neat similes, and enough horror, mystery, and crime to keep anyone enthralled.
Events approach at dizzying speeds and recede almost immediately into the distance, decaying into the fog of battle and shipwreck. The locked room murder meets a Michael Bay movie, by way of Treasure Island; you can’t know what’s going on, if only because the author won’t let you know until he’s delivered the final surprise – and another one after that. The effect is irresistible. Turton has got his world up and running inside the first two pages; thereafter, deceptions and diversions multiply until the ultimate, outrageous reveal, at which point the dark water turns out to be rather darker than you imagined.
It’s a tad Holmes and Watson, a touch Treasure Island, but there’s so much else, too; the lives of women at the time, the contemporary obsession with witchcraft and most of all the authentic stink, creak, superstition and slop of life on board an Indiaman, roaring sailors and all. If you read one book this year, make sure it’s this one.