As a lifelong avid reader, there have been several key moments in my reading journey when things have taken a quantum leap up to a whole other level.
One of those times was around 11 or 12 when I was no longer as challenged by children’s novels as I had once been, and I was looking for something new, something meatier and more challenging to sink my reading teeth into.
My dad came to the rescue, offering up his collection of Agatha Christie novels and I devoured all 66 in quick succession, glorying in the immersively dense and complex, and yet wholly accessible, air of mystery and suspense that each of the books possessed in spades.
Until I came across Stu Turton‘s masterful debut novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I had yet to find anyone else who delivered up quite the same level of engrossingly accessible complexity that Christie brought to her work.
The delight of Turton’s exquisitely well-written, wholly original and wildly imaginative book is that it embodies the same sense of challenge that comes with Christie’s novels, that involving sense that you are the detective as much as the protagonist, in full possession of all the facts and racing to the same conclusion, hopefully at the same time.
“I don’t know our destination, but Evelyn believes we can intercept Madeline on her way back from the hunt. Secretly, I suspect she’s simply looking for an excuse to prolong her absence from the house. Not that any subterfuge is necessary. The last hour in Evelyn’s company is the first time since waking that I’ve felt myself a whole person, rather than the remnants of one. Out here, in the wind and rain, with a friend by my side, I’m happier than I’ve been all day.” P.53)
Of course, if you’re like me, and are less about an orderly, forensic lining up and careful analysis of the facts than allowing yourself to fall in to the sheer experience of sensationally well-plotted and fantastically-detailed sleuthing, you will likely fail miserably at uncovering the perpetrator with a Scooby Doo gang like flourish (to be fair, it’s more of a Poirot or Marple grand reveal but Scooby has the edge in pleasingly-melodramatic theatrics.)
But that’s okay; the reality is that whether you are thrilled by the presentation of tantalising clues and various perspectives or fancy yourself as the detective du jour, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a brilliantly rewarding read on just about every conceivable level.
Propelled, so Turton says, by an array of Post-It notes dancing across his wall on which he collected the main twists and turns of this time-travelling, genre-mixing, consciousness-swapping novel. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle leads us on a dance so fiendishly complex, so character-rich and word-beautiful – trust me, you will stop more often than not simply to gasp with pleasure at Turton’s blissfully-good, dazzlingly-clever expression of the English language – that you will fly through the book at breakneck pace and then wish you had the time, and I’m sure I’ll find it, to turn around and read it all over again.
Among the plethora of laudatory things you can say about this wholly impressive novel is the fact that it is richly-filled with people, some good, many others not so, who are struggling with the innate complexity and contrariness of the human condition, elevated or damned, depending on your perspective, by occupying the rarefied echelons of British society.
All these people are either guests, hosts or staff at at the remote, decrepit English manor known as Blackheath, at which the fractious family, the Hardcastles are holding a grand weekend party, curiously enough on the anniversary of the death of their son Thomas Hardcastle who was murdered as a child.
Every single one of these mostly blighted people , is fully-wrought, marvellously entertaining and superbly detailed, such that you never once feel as if the novel is populated by cardboard cutout, trope-heavy characters.
Every single one of the main characters, from our narrative protagonist, whose identity is shrouded in mystery at first and builds page-by-mesmerising-page, to the mysterious is-she-good-or-is-she-bad Anna, and Miss Evelyn Hardcastle herself who is caught up in a Groundhog Day-esque cycle of endless daily murder (the same day repeats over and over), and an array of fascinating people besides, bristle and entrance with a palpable, fallible humanity that add so many more layers to an already deeply-substantial storyline.
The protagonist himself, who wrestles with a warts-and-all journey through the very best and worst of impulses, always trying to rise to a higher level lest his whole ordeal feel likes it’s for nought, is remarkable, taking us on not simply a connect-the-dots exercise though that happens, and how (again much gasping with excitement will be done, I warn you now) but an existential struggle that never feels overwrought but very groundedly human.
“Grace keeps watch by the door as Cunningham and I slip into Bell’s bedroom, nostalgia painting everything in cheerful colours. After wrestling with the domineering natures of my other hosts, my attitude towards Bell has softened considerably. Unlike Derby, Ravencourt or Rashton, Sebastian Bell was a blank canvas, a man in retreat, even from himself. I poured into him, filling the empty space so completely I didn’t even realise he was the wrong shape.” (P. 378)
That’s quite an accomplishment given how astoundingly out there the premise is in many ways.
Turton’s gift is that he is able to fully explore and make the most of his rich melange of murder mystery, time travel and Quantum Leap-style changing of perspectives, without once losing sight of the humanity that makes it so damn compelling.
As he layers insight upon insight, observation atop observation, deduction next to deduction, all of which is thrillingly fun rather than mindbloggling exhausting – though to be fair there are a lot of ducks and red herrings and tantalising clues to keep in a row; how well you do that is entirely up to you – he never loses sight, and as a result, neither do we, that these are real people, many behaving abominably, some not, grappling with a host of complicating factors and issues.
It never feels like a coldly impersonal job of deep-dive sleuthing, more concerned with reaching the “A-ha!’ finish line than telling a very human story; rather at every turn, even at its most Agatha Christie-ish (and trust me, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle while suggestive of the justly-revered great mystery author, is not derivative in any way, shape or form, a beguilingly original creation all its own), the humanity is front and centre, and the story (and we the lucky readers) is all the richer for it.
If you miss the thrills of oldtime murder mysteries, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle will certainly give you a sleuthing challenge of stellar proportions; more than that, though, it will take you into the very depths of the human soul, with epically dazzling wordsmithing to match, that have you thinking, pondering and luxuriating in Sliding Doors what-ifs long after your time in the rain-soaked environs of Blackheath is over (well until you read it again … and again and …).