I loved Stuart Turton’s debut, his 2018 novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. I wrote a lengthy blog post in response.
His second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water, has me conflicted. I don’t ordinarily bother writing negative reviews, but I liked Evelyn Hardcastle so much I feel a need to hash out my thoughts on its follow-up.
If Evelyn Hardcastle was English country house murder mystery meets Philip K Dick, then this is, as the cover quote gushes, a “mashup of William Golding and Arthur Conan Doyle”. It showcases Turton’s strengths and exposes (what I see as) his shortcomings.
Turton works cross-genre. In that respect, I found myself comparing his works to the novels of David Mitchell, to Turton’s disadvantage. Nominally this novel is set in the 1630s, at the height of the Dutch East India Company’s power. In an Afterward, Turton states, with reason, that he does not write “historical fiction”. He says he’s done the historical research then chosen to dismiss what doesn’t interest him, tossed in deliberate anachronisms. He says readers can interpret his work according to their own understandings. Like a music hall magician, he plucks flowers from a top hat: everybody gets a bouquet. Let a thousand flowers of response bloom.
For Turton, the show, the performance, is all. Like The Devil’s master detective character, Sammy Pipps, he takes joy in the puzzle. It’s bravura dazzle that fizzles under closer inspection. Though I expect he’d argue closer inspection spoils the fun. The tale is an entertainment, a sleight of hand.
If taken this way, it works fine, though this one is bloody long (548 pages).
And I have problems with this funhouse approach, beyond the investment of time and focus.
Firstly, his writing style – the way he strings words together – is pedestrian. With Evelyn Hardcastle, I thought that was a deliberate choice, a parody of early C20th British novelists such as, oh, John Buchan, maybe. Geoffrey Household. Agatha Christie. But here, it dawns on me that’s how he writes. Kinda Enid Blyton, Famous Five.
Secondly: His plotting is fantastical, a deliberate choice; can also be described as convoluted, and lacking integrity. With a plot this complex, it’s bizarre (to me) to learn from the Afterward that he blithely substituted a different resolution when his “wife pointed out that my original ending was rubbish”. You can build a house of cards that way, if you don’t mind it crashing. A novel?
Thirdly. History doesn’t matter if we choose to disregard history. But Turton draws on episodes from history here that IMHO do merit more considered handling. For the longest time it appears he’ll hang his plot on two real-life episodes from Imperialist, colonial history: the massacre by the Dutch East India Company of inhabitants of the Banda Islands (conquest 1609-1621); and the 1629 mutiny planned on the Dutch treasure ship the Batavia, the vessel’s shipwreck on an isolated archipelago, and the subsequent massacre of survivors by the mutineers.
Declaration of interest: my uncle, author Hugh Edwards, was co-leader of the maritime expedition that discovered the wreck of the Batavia. He subsequently wrote a prize-winning book on the subject, Island of Angry Ghosts (1966). As a child I was an extra in the dramatised documentary The Wreck of The Batavia, directed by Bruce Beresford (1972). I appear as a demonic cabin boy. My cousin played an angelic cabin boy who gets decapitated. The film rights to my uncle’s book are currently held by actor Russell Crowe.
Forty people died in the shipwreck when the Batavia sank. One hundred and fifteen survivors were then murdered. Five of the mutineers were ultimately hanged on site. Others were flogged, keel-hauled, dropped from the yard-arm, broken on the wheel.
The Banda Islands? There were about 15,000 inhabitants pre-conquest. By 1621, perhaps 1,000 remained. The others had been killed, starved, drowned, enslaved, deported by the Dutch.
As we say in Australia, ya wouldn’t read about it.
Sadly, we don’t read much about it in Turton’s novel. It’s part of the background, a red herring, a backdrop for Turton’s cheap tricks.
Spoiler? Spoiled it for me.