The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton review – irresistible maritime mystery

Murder, conspiracy and gothic mayhem abound in the follow-up to The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, set during a 17th-century ocean voyage

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – a curiously invigorating mix of genres described by its publishers as “Gosford Park meets Inception, by way of Agatha Christie” – won the 2018 Costa award for best first novel. Stuart Turton’s second novel is a further pick’n’mix affair involving a demon, an impossible murder and a celebrated “alchemical detective” called Samuel Pipps. A maritime mystery with fantastical overtones, it’s set on an East Indiaman during the punishing eight-month ocean journey from Batavia to Amsterdam.

It’s 1634: the Dutch East India Company, run by a shadowy cabal of capitalists known as “the Gentlemen 17”, has called back Batavia’s governor general to reward his colonial success by electing him one of them. Along with the governor on the galleon Saardam travel his wife, their daughter and his mistress. Conditions are cramped and foul. The sailors are brutal and the noble passengers untrustworthy. Something is awry in the humid gloom below decks, and it’s soon apparent that they’re afloat not just on the ocean but on the murky waters of greed and capital. What’s the secret of “The Folly”, the inexplicable quasi-scientific object the governor has brought aboard with him? Why has Samuel Pipps, acknowledged to be the most respected criminal investigator of his day, been dragged aboard in chains? How can he solve a locked-room murder that seems so impossible as to be supernatural, when he’s shut in a cell the size of a coffin himself? Is the demon “Old Tom” real, or only a Scooby Doo-style player in one of the many onboard commercial and political factions? From the governor to Pipps’s assistant Arent Hayes, to the demon itself, everyone seems related, entangled in backstory. Everyone has a motive.

Murder, conspiracy and gothic mayhem aside, these are only some of the mysteries we expect our crimefighting duo to solve as the Saardam flounders its way towards Holland. Pipps and Hayes are as opposite a pair of opposites as you could desire. Where the sleuth is nicknamed “the sparrow”, his bodyguard is vast and ugly, with shorn scalp, “nose punched flat” and scars from his last flogging. Where Pipps is fragile, handsome and fiercely rational, Hayes, despite his size, durability and blunt manners, turns out to be a man of surprising empathy and gentleness. Despite Pipps’s intelligence and Hayes’s experiences in the mud and blood of the eighty years’ war, neither of them seems, at the outset, entirely competent. And, constant revelation being part of Turton’s technique, neither of them, of course, is what he seems.

Turton back-narrates their relationship in little synoptic segments that suggest it has already developed across a whole series of novels, as if assuming the committed fan’s familiarity with earlier adventures even as he brings the first-time reader brusquely up to speed. The order of that relationship, he implies, is being reversed! Just for this adventure, the assistant must reluctantly become the detective! Can he apply his mentor’s methods, or must he find his own way? It’s a classic manoeuvre, used to revive interest in many a long-running crime series – one among several sly mimicries and references it would be a pity to spoil here. Nods from writer to reader acknowledge a major pleasure of contemporary entertainment: the sharing of the trope.

The Devil and the Dark Water is all about narrative pleasure. In the service of its high-speed, self-aware twists and turns, characters often talk as if they know they’re in a book, and are either nudging a forgetful reader or winking at a complicit one. They’ll undergo heavy-gauge backstory additions to fit them for a reveal or for their next set of tasks and excitements; our idea of the character as we already know them will conflict for a page or two with their new demeanour, then succumb as our sympathies tilt to accommodate. This helps the author convey the emotional charge of each scene in a quick-and-dirty fashion. Before one crazed encounter has ended (a burning leper, say, haranguing a crowd on the docks), the next (the meet-angry of the detective’s assistant and the governor’s beautiful wife) has already begun.

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.

M John Harrison’s latest novel is The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (Gollancz). The Devil and the Dark Water is published by Raven (£16.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.


M John Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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