Stuart Turton’s follow up to his mind bending science fiction crime genre mashing award winner The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle feels like another genre mash. The Devil and the Dark Water, set in the 17th Century on board an Indiaman headed from Batavia to Amsterdam, trucks not only in murders to be solved but in the occult and devilry. But all of its narrative tricks tend to hide the fact that is a much more straight forward, Agatha Christie meets Sherlock Holmes mystery than meets the eye. This, of course, is part of Turton’s genius.
The Devil and the Dark Water opens as if readers are reading the latest of a historical detective series about a Holmesian style detective and his offsider. Samuel Pipps is a world renowned thief taker, known for the diary-like record of his exploits written and distributed by his hulking, former mercenary offsider Arent Hayes. But this is the point in the series where the crime solving genius is sidelined and his offsider is charged with solving the case. For reasons unknown, Pipps has been arrested and is being shipped back to Amsterdam in cell. So that when the impossible murders start, even before their ship sets sail, it is up to Arent to try and draw on the skills that Pipps has taught him to solve the case.
Impossible events keep occurring as the legend of a devilish force known as Old Tom comes to life on board the ship. Old Tom has threatened to deliver three miraculous deeds, after which anyone who has not joined him will die. And slowly, as those deeds come to light and the ship is blown off course by a storm, the mood on the ship starts to shift. Arent is charged with investigating and he is helped by Sara, wife of the abusive Governor, who also turns out to be Arent’s foster “uncle”. No one who is as they seem on this boat, everyone has a backstory and no one can be trusted, particularly when the investigators are told that any one of the crew may have been possessed by Old Tom.
Turton has once again set up an irresistible, action packed, page-turning mystery. The characters are vivid, the mysteries pile up and the situation becomes increasingly dire. As with The Seven Deaths of Eveyln Hardcastle, he manages a large and diverse cast and a complex plot with plenty of moving parts. There are echoes here of Agatha Christie parlour mysteries but even moreso the influence of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles in which Watson is sent to investigate seemingly supernatural goings on. Drawing on these influences, and in some ways using them to manage his readers’ expectations, Turton delivers a totally original tale that is intriguing, sometimes terrifying and ultimately satisfying.