The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton’s debut novel published in 2018, earned him a Costa Book Award for Best First Novel in the same year for being an inventive thriller that keeps readers on their toes.
The Devil and the Dark Water is no different. Set in 1634, it follows a motley bunch of characters about to board the Saardam, a hulking East India merchant ship departing from Batavia (now Jakarta) for Amsterdam on a perilous eight-month ocean voyage headed towards destruction even before setting sail, as a leper delivers a sinister warning that his “master”, an unseen evil entity, is on the vessel and all who board it will “be brought to merciless ruin”.
On the ship are Samuel (Sammy) Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, and his ever-loyal bodyguard, former mercenary Arent Hayes. Pipps, having been taken prisoner, is accused of a crime he is not aware of having committed and will stand trial before a shadowy organisation called the Gentlemen 17 in Amsterdam. Convinced of his innocence, Arent is intent on clearing his name.
A slew of notable passengers makes up the group set on the doomed voyage. There is the heartless and cruel Governor General Jan Haan, his plucky wife Sara Wessel, their daughter and genius extraordinaire Lia, Haan’s mistress Creesjie Jens, chamberlain Cornelius Vos, guard captain Jacobi Drecht, predikant Sander Kers and his ward, Isabel.
None of them is without purpose, including the Saardam’s crewmen, among whom are “murderers, cutpurses and malcontents”. Each of them, as we quickly learn, is an indispensable puzzle piece to a murder mystery laced with the supernatural, as Old Tom — the “devil” whom we may or may not know to be the cause of a string of unnatural deaths and occurrences — prowls the ship, striking bargains with passengers who possess ambitions and motivations of their own.
This is a story that is difficult to discuss without giving away too many details. It is fraught with twists and turns that send readers flying from one chapter to the next, as each ends with a cliffhanger. The dynamic duo Pipps and Arent are parallels to Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. But unlike them, Pipps remains imprisoned in the depths of the ship while Arent — the massive and scarred giant who had spent years on the battlefield, lending him the impression of being all brawn but no brains — is left to do all the sleuthing.
Perhaps by taking the attention away from Pipps and presenting a narrative told from the point of view of his sidekick is what makes the story so compelling. And unlike Dr Watson, who seems to ask redundant questions and relies solely on Holmes, Arent — despite his lack of confidence in solving the strange deaths and events on board the ship and possibly having to confront an entity beyond the material, a devil-worshipping cult, and an assortment of immoral individuals who have no qualms about furthering their own plans — races against time before a series of three unholy miracles takes place and makes the effort to get to the bottom of the case.
Brave and fiercely intelligent Sara Wessel takes his side to help solve a crime that casts suspicion on everyone, thus forming a new dynamic duo. Turton highlights that she, too, is subject to the social expectations of the time, of women being seen but unseen, heard but unheard. Yet, we could also say he takes creative liberties with how involved Sara and the other women are in the narrative.
While some murder mysteries tend to gloss over characterisation in favour of a fast-paced plot, the author goes to great lengths to build his characters as solid backstories that propel the narrative forward, so much so readers even feel empathy for the antagonists. There is no clear demarcation between good and evil in any of the characters, a trait that further complicates the plot and keeps readers guessing until the very end.
Inspired by the 1628 shipwreck of Batavia, where a litany of atrocities was committed, The Devil and the Dark Water is no mere impossible locked-room murder mystery. As the Saardam bobs on the open waters, it plays a vital role in the narrative. With its creepy, gloomy passages under the decks and hidden compartments aplenty, paired with the vile and ominous markings of Old Tom, one gets the impression that the confined space for this cat-and-mouse game intensifies the tension and horror of not knowing what lurks beyond the corner with the characters conscious that the murderer is on board but having nowhere to flee.
A combination of mystery and social commentary, this 500-page novel is not all intrigue and suspense. It reflects the notions of the time, from gender disparity and social class to patriarchy and capitalism, as well as the supernatural (with frequent mentions of superstition and witchcraft), science and technology. With the engaging plot, enigmatic characters and a convoluted mystery as conspiracies and bodies turn up one after the other, this is a book you will not be able to resist reading.
This article first appeared on Dec 14, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.