I so thoroughly enjoyed 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Stuart Turton’s latest novel, a mystery set aboard a 17th century East Indiaman trade ship sailing from Batavia (now Jakarta) to Amsterdam. Within pages of meeting Sammy Pipps, a detective or “thief-catcher” of Holmesian perception, and his bodyguard/Watson/Boswell Arent Hayes, I was hooked.
That’s the difficulty of strong openings: The rest of the novel has to live up to them. Now I’m sadly in the position of having to review a mystery I didn’t like without giving too much away. I’m avoiding huge spoilers, but some hints will be necessary to justify my irritation.
When we meet Sammy and Arent, Sammy is in manacles, having been arrested by Governor General Jan Haan on charges that are not immediately explained. Haan, his wife Sara Wessel, their daughter Lia, and a smattering of other dignitaries are boarding the Saardam for the eight-month voyage to Amsterdam, where the Governor General hopes to be appointed as a member of the Gentleman Seventeen, the governing body of the Dutch East India Company. As the crew and passengers are boarding, a leper warns that the Saardam is doomed and that nobody aboard will reach Amsterdam alive: “Know that my master 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 aboard her will be brought to merciless ruin.” With Sammy imprisoned and unable to investigate this and other strange omens, it’s up to Arent and the sympathetic Sara to unravel the mystery and save the ship.
Sara is noble and kind and strong, and of course her husband Jan is an abusive dick. Also aboard is Creesjie Jens, Sarah’s friend and Jan’s mistress. Daughter Lia is a twelve-year-old engineering prodigy who has to suppress her urges to advise the crew on a better ways of working. “Cleverness is a type of strength,” Sara advises her, “and they won’t accept a woman who is stronger than they are. Their pride won’t allow it, and their pride is the thing they hold dearest.” All this woman power is fantastic up to a point, but the characters are all so shallowly drawn that it started to feel like pandering. Lia is so brilliant that she invents something called “The Folly” to help ships navigate at sea. While Turton never elaborates on how it works, I suspect Lia was about 100 years ahead of her time. The character development is disappointing, and I started to wish that Turton had written in multiple perspectives, with each chapter focusing on a different character’s point of view. Certainly this would be challenging given that somebody on the ship is a murderer, but this is the author who wrote multiple character perspectives plus time shifts in Evelyn Hardcastle, so I’m pretty sure he could have managed it. Additionally, the relationship between Sara and Arent is forced, like when a romantic comedy throws two people together and you accept it because it’s a movie and why not. Towards the end of the novel, when Sara thinks, “It was going to be difficult loving that man,” I rolled my eyes so hard I made myself dizzy.
If character development had been my only complaint, though, this book would still have managed a solid 3 stars from me: not brilliant, but entertaining enough to be worth the effort.
**Here’s where things get a bit spoiler-y**
The mystery itself turns out to be such an elaborate revenge plot it could have been thought up by Dr. Evil. As is repeatedly acknowledged, 17th century voyages were fraught with danger even before you add in devils and murder. How anyone could realistically expect to pull off a plot like this while at the mercy of the sea is beyond my willing suspension of disbelief. On top of this, there are elements in this novel that must be part of the solution, because otherwise there would be no reason to include them (red herrings aside). I don’t mind when I guess part of a solution (I love Anthony Horowitz, even though he often gleefully tips his hand), but when I find myself thinking, “Oh no, is this where it’s going?” and I’m right, it’s pretty disappointing.
Finally, in the last two pages of the novel, characters completely betray their ideals. Is this because Turton’s publishers required a happy ending or, more likely, thought they could build a series out of this novel? I’ll be honest, in spite of everything I’ve said, if Devil and the Dark Water is followed up with a series that includes the same characters, I’d be willing to give it a shot. If this book had taken a more light-hearted tone to begin with, I’d have been more forgiving. I can see where future novels could be more fun and adventure-like, and they might work. Then that would just make Devil and the Dark Water the origin story that nobody asked for.