The Devil and the Dark Water is a wonderful spin on a nautical mystery in the style of Sherlock Holmes. Featuring a stellar cast, a rich and atmospheric setting, chilling brushes with the supernatural and a grippingly paced plot, this was everything one could possibly hope for from a mystery novel. I found it incredibly clever, satisfyingly twisty and deliciously suspenseful. And it had an ending I didn’t see coming. Honestly, I couldn’t ask for more.
“Questions are swords and answers are shields… I’m begging you, armor yourself.”
Our story is set in 1634 on the Saardam, a merchant ship leaving Batavia (Jakarta) for Amsterdam. The cast of characters aboard the Saardam is oozing with personality. Every character was fascinating, and many of them tended to be both multifaceted and simultaneously a caricature of some sort. Even the most horrid of characters had redeeming qualities in at least one other character’s eyes. My favorite character was Arent Hayes, hands down. He’s fiercely loyal, good to the core, willing to get his hands dirty to protect others, and far more intelligent than he believes himself to be. But there were other characters, like Sara and Lia and Sammy, who were surprisingly full of depth and who I desperately wanted to learn more about. I would actually love to read a followup book featuring the further adventures of a handful of these characters, should Turton choose to revisit them.
“Courage isn’t the absence of fear… It’s the light we find when fear is all there is.”
I love the relationship between Samuel Pipps and Arent Hayes. Their friendship reminded me strongly of Holmes and Watson, even though they as individuals are radically different from the aforementioned duo. The closeness of their relationship and their fraternal love for one another, though, bear a strong resemblance to Holmes and Watson.
“He’d always believed miracles were what happened when you finally ran out of hope. They were bits of luck, polished until they gleamed, delivered exactly as you needed them.”
While reading, I was strongly reminded of The Hound of the Baskervilles in multiple ways. Firstly, the the duality of wondering if the supernatural is real and to blame, or if the entire supernatural element is a mask behind which the true action is hiding, is a consuming question. Secondly, the famous detective who is supposed to answer all of our questions is off screen for the majority of the narrative, as Sherlock is in Baskervilles. I found The Devil and the Dark Water even more satisfying than The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is incredibly high praise as it’s one of my favorite stories in the Holmes canon. Doyle very much knew what he was doing, but Turton took note and ran with it.
“Guilt was like dirt. It got under the skin and didn’t come clean. It made people second guess everything that was done, find fault where there was none and imagine mistakes that weren’t made.”
Besides the beautifully balanced, unpredictable mystery and the highly well-developed characters, my favorite element of the novel was Turton’s writing. The man has an incredible way with words, and yet there’s not an ounce of pretension or smugness to his prose. It’s never flowery, but it’s always resonant. There were quite a few turns of phrases that I had to annotate simply because they were so well worded. As a side note, the author’s afterword at the end of the novel, in which he apologizes to history and ships for the liberties he takes with them, is absolutely delightful and gave me an even greater appreciation for Turton as an author.
“Some songs weren’t mere songs. They were memories curled tight and set alight.”
I liked The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, but I didn’t love it. I’m not sure I would have given The Devil and the Dark Water a chance had it not been for the promise of “Sherlock Holmes on the high seas” and the glowing review of my co-blogger Emma, who also gifted me a stunning hardcover copy with sprayed red edges and creepy eyes. I’m so glad she gave TS and I this gift, and that the two of us and Eon decided to read it together, because this book blew Turton’s first novel out of the water. No pun intended. The Devil and the Dark Water has earned its spot on the shelf with Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. It’s one of my favorite books of the year, and one of my favorite mysteries I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
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