BOOK REVIEW: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

For those pitching a book It can be helpful to reduce the essence of your story into one catchy tagline; one that will grab everyone’s attention and deliver a summery both alluring and precise enough so that an agent might take it on, an editor might want to invest in it and the reader might want to read it. Stuart Turton came up with a zigger here with:

Gosford Park Meets Inception By Way of Agatha Christie.

Now even if you’re not big on the component parts, one can’t deny that the combination sounds intriguing. It conjures images of blood spilt on Persian carpets, of fine suits and evening wear, of cigarettes, of mirages, of dreams and altered realities. In fact, in regards to this review I couldn’t summarize it better, except perhaps to add, ‘via Quantum leap (and no, there’s no Leonardo DiCaprio in this one)’. One might say that the only issue here is: Can such a concept actually be delivered? I mean, that’s quite a lot to squeeze into a debut novel.
Well, for one thing, it’s not a small debut novel, so I guess that helps. At 500 pages the author has given himself enough space to layout his vision. For another thing, it’s true that with enough dedication any crazy fantasy can be created (just look at Lord of the Rings and the ten years of world building, language sculpting and history plotting creation went into those books). With, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Turton has worked impressively hard to deliver a fascinating novel that does indeed contain the flavoursome promise of its tagline. It takes an enjoyable concept and turns it into a fraught and page-turning plot.
The concept in this case is one of the body shifting narrator, or – if you remember Quantum Leap – something more like body-jumping. The key is when a novel contains a strong concept to make sure that the plot doesn’t suffer for the sake of the idea. A winning example is Kate Akinson’s Life after Life, which follows a character whose life recurs again, having the chance to live again and explore new routes through life. Through these lives the character both meets and then avoids her doom. What is explored is the wealth of choices and consequences that make up life. The character drives through the concept and ensures the reader doesn’t get bored as the life recurs. In Seven Deaths the writer has to achieve the same, namely, make sure the concept override the development of the novel and lose the reader’s interest.
I would say the author has achieved this feat and mainly by focusing intensely on plot. The skill of the plot is the great achievement of this novel. It is so intricately plotted that it can dazzle the reader with its detail. We watch as our initially unnamed character wakes up and cannot remember anything about himself. He does not recognise his body or his face. He wakes screaming for Anna, whom he also cannot quite remember, and then he hears a scream in the wood. From here on we follow our narrator as he navigates his new body. He is a guest at Blackheath – a decaying country house – and he is the first of eight bodies our narrator will inhabit. We are introduced to the state of play by a mysterious, masked, over-worldly master – The Plague Doctor- who gives our narrator his objective: there will be a murder and it is his job to find out who committed it. The rules are laid down: he shall see the day of the murder from the bodies of eight separate individuals at Blackheath; once the day has played out in one body, he will wake up in another body and the whole day will play out again and the answer to the mystery must be delivered to the Plague Doctor before 11.00pm of the last day in the last body or else, the whole process will begin again.
Already in this synopsis, one can see how complicated this makes the plot. Our character – whose name we come to understand is Aiden – will live the day out eight times from eight different characters. Their worlds are constantly colliding, events of the day can be changed by any of their actions and this can result in the future being changed. A whole myriad of cause and effect can be played with through this concept and the results are rather beautifully orchestrated.
Turton has carefully plotted every second of this day and as we watch Aiden travel through his suitably disparate bodies, the mystery is slowly unfolded. The characters that Aiden inhabits are drawn almost like charactertures, like figures on a Cluedo board each has their own view of the murder scene. The author adds a lovely touch in that whilst Aiden is being any of these people – the cowardly doctor Sebastian Bell, the sharp-minded Lord Ravencourt – each of their personality traits affects how Aiden works through the day. Sometimes their anger takes hold of him, sometimes their cowardice inhibits and it increasingly becomes harder for Aiden to separate his mind from theirs. So the combined effect is a fabulous, confusing race against time. The placing of every single object is important and every conversation and it is only testament to a phenomenal amount of planning by the author that any of this makes sense. Luckily, for the reader everything links and suitably there is also a murder mystery twist to uncover at the end (which I was nowhere near guessing).
Such a book is a pleasure to read, blending concept and plot seamlessly so that one never ties of Aiden waking up again in another strange body. This novel has the pace of a thriller and all the classic intrigue of an Agatha Christie. It is also down to earth, the language is bright, brisk and uninhibited, and this allows the pace to build as one goes through the book. Thematically, the novel is not too bogged down in grand themes. If there is a thread of thought that flows underneath this quirky book it is a meditation on free will. Aiden is battling a history already written out for him at the start of everyday and it is up to him to see if and how he wants to change it. Aiden is working against fate to construct a new narrative, both with the day that he is stuck in and with the characters that he interacts with.
Most of all, this is a fun book. It entertains in that the reader can try and break the riddles alongside the character, even if like him, one sometimes ends up going round in circles.

 

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is published by Raven Books and is available here.
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Stuart Turton

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Stuart Turton is the author of a high-concept crime novel and lives in London with his amazing wife, and drinks lots of tea.

Reviewed by Jessica Gregory

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