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)
Cunningly crafted and delightfully devilish, the Devil and the Dark Water is not only a masterpiece of a mystery novel but also the most fun I had between the pages in 2020.
And that right there might be all I need to say. While it was a horrible year in most aspects, books were a shining light in the dark, providing the very escapism I needed time and time again with a stellar line-up of stories read. Eeyore-mode averted. (It’s not a pretty sight, I confess.) And if it isn’t already transparently obvious, The Devil and the Dark Water more than did its part in keeping that gloom away. It was one of the stars of the show, making Mr Turton a shoo-in for not only the best new-to-me author I read that year but also my auto-buy author list. This might be your triumph dear author, but it feels like the pleasure was all mine, and I thank you for it.
Let me set the scene.
1634, Batavia (now known as Jakarta, Indonesia). The VOC ship, The Saardam, is about to journey to Amsterdam to deliver various cargo and one prisoner. The prisoner’s crime is being kept a secret by his accusers, but his fate is not. Execution. To his assistant, bodyguard, and close friend Arent, the prisoner is simply known as Sammy, and he requires Arent’s help to prove his innocence. To the rest of civilisation, the prisoner is known as Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective. As the ship makes its way onto the open seas, Arent is determined to use every ounce of skill he has acquired from solving cases at Sammy’s side to uncover the (scurrilous?) charges and absolve his friend of them. He is sailing in dark, uncharted waters though because he cannot rely on his friend to help solve the case due to his imprisonment (which is a stroke of genius dear author, teasing us with this brilliant detective but shackling him so to speak). But they have hardly set sail when the ship is plagued by several ominous, sometimes deadly occurrences, forcing Arent to divert his attention as devilry threatens to tear everything apart.
‘Know that my master’ – his roaming gaze snagged on Arent, causing the mercenary’s heart to jolt – ‘sails aboard the Saardam. He is the lord of hidden things; all desperate and dark things. He offers this warning in accordance with the old laws. The Saardam’s cargo is sin and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam.’
Turton has written quite the colourful cast of characters here, keeping them very distinctive (always appreciated) and fascinating, each in their own right. While my favourite was Arent (loyal, steadfast, brilliant, Arent), I thoroughly enjoyed all of the characters, with Sarah and Lia also standing out from the pack. Sarah for her refusal to any longer be demure and diminished and showing what she is capable of, and Lia, with her obsessively inquisitive nature and intellect, also giving glimpses of her promising capabilities, but still mostly leashed. Thrown together with a motley crew of sailors (and more than a few of them unsavoury fellows) in a claustrophobic setting such as this, a ship at sea for months on end, you have quite the melting pot of flavours which is sure to boil over at some point. Especially considering the vastly different classes and beliefs. Superstition has ever been an irrational bedfellow, and sailors can be a very excitable lot.
Everybody thinks sailing is about the wind and waves. It aint. Sailing’s about the crew, which means it’s about superstition and hate. The men you’re depending on to get you home are murderers, cutpurses and malcontents, unfit for anything else. They’re only on this ship because they’d be hanged anywhere else. They’ve got short tempers and violent passions, and we’ve locked them all together in a space we’d feel bad keeping cattle in.
The confined space of the ship of course also made for extremely atmospheric reading. The vastness of the sea, the isolation, fear of the unknown – all of it makes for one hell of a creepy terror show when things start going wrong. I admit, seafaring stories have not always worked for me in print (although I adore them on screen), but Turton never makes it feel like you are reading a seafaring story, rather, putting the characters of which the sea and ship feel part of, in the spotlight, together with the mystery unfolding on the decks.
“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.”
The writing in The Devil and the Dark Water is of such quality that I simply inhaled it, yet never failed to stop and admire the terrific turns of phrase and the wonderfully evocative sentences that were so ubiquitous throughout. I lost count of the number of times the author wrote something in a way I had not read before that just felt right, instantly conveying the perfect imagery or feeling and having me scrambling back and forth between my Kindle and my physical book to highlight these numerous instances. And the best part of it? Mr Turton’s writing never feels ostentatious, rather lending clarity to what is being said and doing so elegantly.
“Courage isn’t an absence of fear. It’s the light we find when fear is all there is.”
All of these different elements are tied together tautly through the perfectly plotted suspense, which is simply put, superb. The author ratchets up the tension slowly but steadily, but make no mistake; Turton’s penned tale possesses page-turning capability of the highest order, matched by terrific twistiness and complemented wonderfully by delightful prose. The mystery element keeps you guessing, then second-guessing, and guess many times I did, in every possible direction without ever landing close to the mark. And then there is the genuine possibility of supernatural involvement poised above the story like an executioner’s axe most of the time… I confess, at first, I scoffed at this notion. But then a sliver of doubt crept in. And another. And where once I was steadfast, I was see-sawing on my opinion on whether or not there were mystical forces at work here. If you give Turton’s suspenseful story a chance, I am convinced he is sure to also have you questioning what you think you know before the end of this voyage.
The devil is, after all, in the details.
Read it! Read it! Read it!