Set in a crumbling gothic mansion at the edge of a forest on the night of a glittering ball, a beautiful young woman is about to be murdered. Using established tropes from 1920s murder mysteries, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, winner of the Costa First Novel Award 2018, is a very modern take on the genre. It’s an intricately plotted, disorientating, dark and immersive read that will keep you guessing right until the end.
The cast of characters includes doctors and solicitors, an artist, a banker and a policeman, plus assorted socialites and peers of the realm, maids, butlers and grooms. The action takes place in dining halls, billiard rooms and underground passages. There is dressing for dinner, there is a hunt, there are cigars and dusty libraries. Ah, you think, I know where I am! This is familiar Agatha Christie/Sherlock Holmes territory. You couldn’t be more wrong. At times you will be more confused than someone waking up with memory loss. Which is in fact how the book opens.
Sebastian Bell is running through a dark wood, convinced he has just seen someone being murdered. He doesn’t know who she is but knows her name and he knows he must head for the dark and gloomy mansion to get help. Fellow guests tell him his name, but he doesn’t recognise his own face in the mirror, he can’t remember how he came by the knife wounds on his arm, and a strange trunk in his room with one chess piece in it holds no clue to his occupation or personality – except he knows he is terrified.
He discovers that the ball is being thrown to commemorate the death of Evelyn Hardcastle’s brother 19 years ago. When a man in a scary mask keeps appearing to give him warnings (and sometimes advice) we quickly realise this is no ordinary country house party. One by one we meet other characters in the unfolding tale, each of whom has a part to play in helping one man solve the mystery. Because every night Evelyn Hardcastle dies from a gunshot, and no one will be free until our man finds out whodunit. I can’t tell you much more about how this happens without giving away the central narrative device but I can tell you it owes a lot to science fiction, Groundhog Day and Dante’s Inferno.
As the novel progresses you wonder what this increasingly bonkers game of Cluedo represents: is the house one of the circles of hell? Is the psychopathic footman the devil in disguise? Is it some kind of cosmic chess game? If so, who is being tested and is anyone who they say they are? Or is it an elaborate system of justice and retribution that we are all somehow a part of? Despite this darkness and desperation, it is not without hope:
‘Tomorrow can be whatever I want it to be, which means for the first time in decades, I can look forward to it. Instead of being something to fear, it can be a promise I make myself. A chance to be braver or kinder, to make what was wrong right. To be better than I am today. Every day after this one is a gift. I just have to keep walking until I get there.’
I wish I could tell you more because this is such a cleverly structured book you’ll want to start all over again at the beginning to see how Turton manages to pull off such an audacious idea. My only reservations are that it’s a little too long and some of his descriptions are a bit hackneyed. But you will be blown away by the plot.
P.S. Get a print copy because you’ll want to keep referring to the map and the room plans.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is published by Raven Books, 528 pages.