THE SEVEN DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE
Raven Books (www.bloomsbury.com)
A man wakes in the middle of the woods and can remember nothing except the name “Anna”. Hearing noise nearby, he believes that Anna is being murdered, but has no idea why he believes this to be the case, or why she might be murdered, or who – for that matter – she is. So begins Aiden Bishop’s first day in Blackheath, although all the other people in attendance seem to think he is a man named Sebastian Bell. When a man in a plague doctor’s mask appears and informs him that he has eight days – and eight hosts – to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, daughter of the family who own Blackheath, Bishop can’t quite believe it, wasting precious time and hosts attempting to escape, or change the course of events. But Bishop soon discovers he’s not the only outsider in Blackheath – there are at least two others attempting to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, and only one person can gain their freedom by doing so. So, as the day repeats, and the deadline looms, Bishop puts his hosts to work, learning the dark secrets of Blackheath, the Hardcastles and the guests who have all been gathered here together once before.
From the outset, there is nothing to suggest that Stuart Turton’s debut is more than what it appears to be on the surface: an old-fashioned, Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. Not until we meet the stranger in the plague doctor mask do we begin to get a sense that this is a story in which Hercules Poirot would quickly feel very uncomfortable and out of his depth. At this point we begin to understand why Aiden Bishop’s memory is so spotty, if not necessarily the full story behind his seeming imprisonment in someone else’s body.
In essence, Turton presents us a single crime from eight different viewpoints, a common enough premise in a crime novel. But where The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle differs from those crime novels is in showing us the same crime eight times, as seen by the same man in a different body. This allows him to see things one day that he might have missed on others, and we discover the little clues that future hosts have left for him. What takes one day in real time takes eight days in Aiden Bishop’s life, allowing him to collate the evidence from his different hosts in the hope that it might help him solve the crime: who killed Evelyn Hardcastle?
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is not for the fainthearted. It’s a complex beast, referencing points in its past and future as we progress through the days. One has an image of Stuart Turton sat in the middle of a room full of notes, all connected by pieces of string, in an attempt to ensure that the story makes sense, and that one piece of evidence never contradicts any of the others. It’s an accomplished debut, and one that pays off in spades for the patient and careful reader.
Very much a character-driven piece, it quickly becomes clear that we never quite meet the real Aiden Bishop. He influences the thoughts and actions of his hosts and, in return, they influence his, so that Aiden Bishop in the body of Sebastian Bell is a very different creature from Aiden Bishop in the body of Lord Ravencourt. The only constant Bishop has is the mysterious Anna, who seems inclined to help him, and to whom he appears to have made a promise to help her get free when he solves the crime. The only thing that stands between Bishop and freedom is the equally-mysterious Footman, who will stop at nothing to ensure that he fails. Through the eyes of Bishop, we meet not only his eight hosts, but the other guests at Blackheath. This is a special gathering: these people haven’t been together since the fateful day when one of the Hardcastle children disappeared, so there is an air of mistrust between the guests, all of whom – it would appear – have something to hide.
Turton shows great skill in telling his story, drip-feeding us information as and when it becomes relevant. As a result, we’re always one step behind, and when the final revelation comes, it’s shocking and brilliant, a piece of magic that leaves the reader gape-mouthed but very, very happy. Turning everything we thought we knew on its head, Turton manages to find the perfect ending for one of the most original pieces of fiction to appear in the past decade.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is, quite simply, an incredible debut from a very talented new writer. A complex but tightly-plotted narrative grabs the reader from the first page and carries them effortlessly through the story. Agatha Christie by way of Quantum Leap and with a dash of Inception, Evelyn Hardcastle turns those old-fashioned mystery tropes on their head to produce something new and exciting, a story that will play on the reader’s mind long after the final page has been read. With a debut this good, I can’t wait for Stuart Turton’s next novel, but I have to be honest: if it’s as complex as this one, I fear for his sanity. Definitely one for my end-of-year list, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has quickly become one of my favourite books of all time.