November 17, 2020

The Devil and the Dark Water (2020) - Stuart Turton

"'Know that my master... sails aboard the Saardam. He is the lord of hidden things; all desperate and dark things. He offers this warning in accordance with the old laws. The Saardam's cargo is sin and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam.'"

Stu Turton first came onto my radar back in March, when I learned about The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. I was a couple hours into the audiobook, which I would listen to during my work commute, when Covid hit and I was made to work from home. I found it hard to continue with such a long, complexly plotted audiobook during that initial period, when I had to make special time to listen to it, so I let it lapse until a more opportune time. At some point during the summer I came upon Stu's Twitter, where he was promoting his upcoming 2nd novel, a historical mystery with an "impossible murder" on the high seas, and a "demon who may or may not exist". The ensuing days were gloomy, marked off one by one on the wall of my dank enclosure in black tally marks with a chunk of coal, until that glorious day in mid-October when the audiobook finally became available through my library. Over the past few weeks, I've had the pleasure of extending my nightly walks to follow the ill-omened voyage of the Saardam in its course toward ruin, and I've enjoyed every second of it.

The plot summary, as brief as I can make it, is this: It is 1634, and the Saardam along with a fleet of seven other "Indiamen" sets off from Batavia for Amsterdam. The main objective, besides the transportation of spices and other goods, is to bring Governor General Jan Haan back to Europe where he hopes to be inducted into a shadowy group of proto-Globalists, the Gentlemen 17. Also on board is a mysterious device called "The Folly", which he hopes to present them with in order to further win their favor. In addition to about a dozen other important passengers, the famous detective Samuel Pipps is on board, along with his friend, assistant and general bodyguard Arent Hayes. Pipps, however, has had the misfortune of being accused of some kind of serious crime, and is brought aboard the Saardam a prisoner, confined to a dark chamber in the belly of the ship for the entire eight-month voyage until he can be brought before the Gentlemen 17 and tried in the European courts. His imprisonment may prove to be to the detriment of all, however, as it becomes apparent before the ship has even set sail from Batavia that something evil has worked its way on board: a leper climbs a stack of crates to announce the doom of the voyage before bursting into flames, and before long, the mark of "Old Tom", a large eye with a tail, is found drawn in ash on the mainsail. More strange, seemingly supernatural things occur, along with an impossible theft and an impossible murder (in a watched and guarded room, with a weapon that could not have been in the room previously). 

"In their worst hour, when their hope was exhausted, something calling itself Old Tom had whispered to them in the darkness, offering to fulfill their heart's desire in return for a favor."

The book features a sizeable cast of characters, and there are so many major and minor mysteries in this book that it would be easy to devolve into merely listing a series of intriguing events. Even so, the plot is complex without being convoluted, and the character dynamics are well-done; there is never the sense that these are just wooden pieces shuffled around on a chessboard, and Turton seems concerned more with telling a rollicking tale than splicing together a series of puzzles. There are so many adventuresome happenings that with one catastrophe somewhat late in the book, I found myself anxiously wondering how much this might delay the eventual unraveling of the mystery. Ultimately, that event turned out to be a critical element moving the plot toward its ultimate resolution, where everything is (of course) explained in what I found to be a thoroughly satisfying fashion, along with a twist that is... well... a very fine twist indeed.

"'What's the dark water?' 'It's what the old sailors call the soul... They reckon our sins lie beneath it like wrecks on the ocean bed. Dark water is our soul, and Old Tom is swimming within it.'"

I heartily recommend this work as a great example of a book that hearkens back to the Golden Age while also being a fine historical adventure tale. In an interview with Fantastic Planet, Stu cites his major mystery influences as Doyle and Christie, and readers will easily spot certain allusions to the works of both writers, in terms of both cluing and plotting. I found the audiobook version wonderfully read, however I would recommend readers purchase the hardback, both because it is beautifully designed, and because it has a diagram of the Saardam which makes it infinitely easier for those of us unfamiliar with the physical layout of a 17th century Indiaman to envision the proceedings. Finally, I've been pleased to read that Stu has signed a deal with his publisher for two more novels currently in the works. I am hopeful that a particular alliance made in this book becomes the basis for future investigations. In the meantime, now plainly assured Turton is worth the time, I will have to return to Evelyn Hardcastle and her numerous deaths...

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