The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.
Genre: Mystery, historical fiction
Published: 1st October 2020 by Raven Books (Bloomsbury Publishing, UK), 6th October 2020 by Sourcebooks Landmark (US)
Atmospheric as hell and brilliantly crafted, Stuart Turton’s sophomore release, The Devil and the Dark Water, was one of the best mystery novels I’ve ever read, and it solidly cemented his status as a must-read author for me.
Turton’s debut, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, was genre- and ground-breaking. While it was clearly influenced by Agatha Christie, its inventive use of time-loops and body-jumps as a mystery solving device made it feel totally original and refreshing. Nonetheless, something about the ending left me feeling a tad unsatisfied even though I loved the book as a whole.
“Like everything on this ship, the solidity has been an illusion. They’d encased themselves in wood and nails, throwing themselves into the sea, believing their courage would see them safe. And then their enemy had raised its hand and showed them how foolish they’d been.”
And now came The Devil and the Dark Water which blew his debut out of the water with the most deliciously atmospheric, gripping, spooky, twisty and unpredictable mystery plot I’ve yet to come across. Set in first half of 17th century, the historical fiction part of the narrative was part of the allure (although Turton admitted that he took certain liberties especially with the language and portrayal of the female characters, for which I’m actually thankful for). The majority of the story took place on an Indiaman ship called the Saardam, which was set to sail from Batavia to Amsterdam with a secret priceless cargo, and an intriguing prisoner in the form of the world’s greatest detective, Samuel Pipps. A historical side fact: Batavia was the old name for Jakarta, and also the name of a ship owned by the Dutch East India Company in 1628.
“Courage isn’t an absence of fear. It’s the light we find when fear is all there is.”
The depiction of sailing through the high seas with no modern navigational devices, and living in cramped, mostly unhygienic quarters for eight months on a ship was palpably horrifying. To think that people were willing do that and risk their lives for the sake of money, power or prestige (or in some cases, a new life). It does not beggar the imagination to find that a lot of the sailors could be a rough bunch of miscreants and malcontents, for who would work on a ship in those days if they had other choices. The historical setting was also the perfect complement for the story’s major plot point on superstitious beliefs back in those days.
“In the United East India Company, he saw the devil’s hands at work, caging humanity with want, persuading them to buy their manacles new every month.”
All it took was two chapters into the book and I was hooked. The characters, whether they play main or supporting roles, were all distinctive in their personalities, and most of them were truly likeable. Samuel Pipps was the Sherlockian element in this book but for most part was absent from the crucial events and investigation by virtue of his imprisonment. His loyal companion, Arent Hayes, had to take up his mantle in solving the mystery behind the eerily mysterious ‘eye’ symbol and ensuing murders, with the help of Sara Wessel, the unappreciated wife of the governor general. However, this was no ordinary mystery and those were no ordinary murders – could it be that the devil was truly on the ship? The well-written dynamics between the various characters, passengers or crew, and the relationship between Arent and Samuel made this fascinating story even more engaging.
“The past was filled with sharp things. He couldn’t reach for a memory without drawing blood doing it.”
Deft plotting aside, Turton’s key strength as an author is his writing. He really knows how to turn an eloquent and evocative phrase, without ever coming across as pompous, which makes such an impact on the narrative. I’ve highlighted so many sentences and whole passages in this book, a bare handful of which you could see gracing this review.
“Fear was too brittle a material to make good decisions from.”
Before I end this review, I would like to thank my co-blogger, Emma, for gifting me the gorgeous Forbidden Planet signed special edition of this book. The sprayed and stencilled-edges of this edition made the reading experience even creepier with those ‘eyes’ staring at me.
Turton has won me over completely with his splendid sophomore release, and I’m eagerly waiting for more. As a matter of fact, I read this book together with my co-bloggers, Celeste and Eon, and we all agree on the same thing – we want more from this stellar cast of characters.
If you love complex and creepy mysteries, and historical settings, you won’t want to miss this one.