Review: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

NITRB editor Ellen Lavelle reviews Stuart Turton's latest novel.

Stuart Turton’s second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water, sails into bookshops in October this year, in the wake of his triumphant debut The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Seven Deaths won the Costa First Novel of the Year Award in 2018, was shortlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2019 and was Waterstones’ Thriller of the Month for October 2018 – it was a big deal. Ambiguous and sprawling, Turton’s first novel mixed Agatha Christie and Christopher Nolan. It was golden age crime within a mind-bending plot; its complexity and playfulness delighted readers across the world.

It’s a tough act to follow. But it’s time to follow it. 

The origin of Turton’s second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water, goes back to the early 2000s, when he missed a flight to Singapore and ended up stranded in Australia. While he was there, he visited the Maritime Museum on the west coast and discovered the wreckage of The Batavia, a merchant vessel wrecked on a coral island in the 1600s. Not only did the survivors have to deal with the physical challenge of being wrecked on a tiny island, but they also had to deal with a tyrannical officer that assumed control and committed a number of violent atrocities before they were all eventually rescued.  

‘It’s a horrific story, but within it are all these other amazing stories,’ Turton says, in the essay printed in the advanced reading copy of The Devil and the Dark Water. ‘One of the soldiers on board led this heroic resistance. The captain navigated a rescue boat across thousands of leagues of unmapped ocean to bring back help.’ 

Turton wanted to tell these stories but he also wanted more. With the same appetite that drove him to write the genre-defying The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Turton took the story of the shipwreck and added a mystery, a hero, the sense of the occult. 

‘Like Seven Deaths, I wanted a lot,’ he says. ‘And like Seven Deaths, I drove myself a little mad delivering it.’ 

Turton has poured his enthusiasm for the period, for his characters and literature in general, into every page. From the moment The Devil and the Dark Water lowers the gangplank, it draws the reader into an exciting, fast-paced plot. In the way Seven Deaths drew on the style of Agatha Christie, The Devil and the Dark Water tips its tricorn to Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker. The main protagonist, Arent Hayes, is the Watson of the central pair, left to solve the mystery alone while Sammy Pipps, his Sherlock, is imprisoned below deck. Huge, gruff, with a heart of gold, Hayes is almost a hybrid of John Watson and Cormoran Strike – convinced his partner would do a better job but able to use his size and military experience to advantage. He’s an effective investigator and the story, when told through his eyes, is propulsive and efficient. The most frightening sequences are the ones we see through Arent Hayes. 

Turton invests a great deal in Hayes, delving into his background with a story that harks back to Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet – there’s a faraway land, dark secrets, mysticism. He gives him a love storyline that unspools quickly (possibly too quickly), a sharp tongue and a fierce sense of loyalty to his friend. For many readers and, indeed, many Sherlock fans, Hayes will be an immediate favourite. At times, however, the book feels more like the second in a series than a stand-alone novel. Turton relies on us buying Pipps and Hayes’ relationship, even though they share very little time together on the page. We all know what an eccentric genius looks like, as they’re often slinking across our TV screens, and Turton’s instinct, keeping Pipps in the dark and shining the light on Hayes, is a smart move. It does, however, rely on us taking their relationship, their past triumphs and published cases, at face value. Other characters mention reading Hayes’ accounts of their adventures – we hear passing references to previous mysteries – but the pace of the plot gives little opportunity to explore these in detail. It is an adventure story, however – the order of the day is excitement and Turton does deliver this, sloshing intrigue across the deck. 

The cast is colourful and Turton delights in their deviousness and dishonesty, as well as their ability to do good. There are ghostly lepers that haunt the decks, suspicious priests and beautiful courtesans. We hear from most of them, see a scene through their eyes, and then we very quickly hear from another. There are moments where this is slightly jarring, where Turton seems to be yearning for the narrative power of Seven Deaths, where the protagonist spent each chapter in the body of another character. Here, there is no such decisive barrier between perspectives and they sometimes bleed together – within the space of a couple of paragraphs, you’ve visited several different heads. It’s an agile way to tell a story but it does demand a certain level of focus from the reader. Some sections need to be re-read, some footsteps re-traced. But it is a mystery book – clues ask to be inspected. And then inspected again. 

At face value, The Devil and the Dark Water seems like a very different book to The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. The setting and the structure are certainly a change but the style and the scope – the things that matter to Turton fans – are both familiar. The pace increases towards the end and gives way to some real moments of horror. Though some details may temporarily snatch 17th-century historians out of the story – noblewomen carrying a handy set of peasant clothes for when they want to escape the trapping of their station, one or two too many ‘okays’ for 1634 – for readers on the lookout for mystery and murder, Turton’s latest is a must-read. 

The Devil and the Dark Water sets sail in October 2020.  You can pre-order it from Waterstones here.

Thanks to Zoltan Tase on Unsplash for the featured image.

About the Reviewer

Ellen Lavelle is a post-graduate alumni of The University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a novel. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter. 

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