It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported from the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam, where he is facing trial and execution for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent, while also on board are Sara Wessel, a noble woman with a secret, and her husband, the governor general of Batavia.
But no sooner is their ship out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A strange symbol appears on the sail. A dead leper stalks the decks. Livestock are slaughtered in the night. And then the passengers hear a terrible voice whispering to them in the darkness, promising them three unholy miracles. First: an impossible pursuit. Second: an impossible theft. Third: an impossible murder. Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?
With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent and Sara can solve a mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board…
Having read and ADORED Stuart Turton’s debut novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I added The Devil and the Dark Water to my Most Anticipated Reads list as soon as it was announced. Owing to the joys of Pandemic PhD life, it has taken me a few more months than I expected to set aside the time to really sink in and devour this one (Seven Deaths was definitely a book you just wanted to sit and gobble up over the course of a long weekend) but, thanks again to the lovely book club crew at The Write Reads, I was finally got chance to cosy with this 548 page chunkster and can confirm that it did not disappoint!
As with Seven Deaths, The Devil and the Dark Water is a novel that defies genre expectations. It’s set in 1634 so technically it’s a historical novel. As Stuart Turton points out in his afterward though, the history cedes to the story so those coming to the novel expecting a wholly accurate depiction of historical life a la Hilary Mantel or Patrick O’Brien will be disappointed.
There is more than one murder (plus at least one theft) and there’s a detective so is it a crime novel then?
Again…sort of? But the detective is locked up on charges unknown for most of the book, and the murders might be the work of a demonic supernatural entity.
Not quite. Whilst there are horrific acts a plenty, this isn’t simply a tale of things that go bump in the night . The devil might be on board the Saardam but it takes human agency to commit the acts of violence being inflicted upon the increasingly terrified passengers and crew.
The best I can come up with is that The Devil and the Dark Water is a cross between Assassins Creed: Black Flag (age of sail shipboard shenanigans), Murder on the Orient Express (enclosed murder mystery with limited suspects and a brilliant, eccentric detective) and Jaws (terrifying horror stalks everyone on board and you are DEFINITELY going to need a bigger boat). See what I mean about genre-defying?
The end result is, however, utterly brilliant. Turton once again weaves seemingly disparate plot strands and characters into an intricate and tightly bound web to create an elaborate and mind-bending puzzle that kept me guessing right up until the final pages.
In the characters of Arent Hayes and Sara Wessel, Turton has created two fantastic and likeable protagonists who, by the time the novel was over, felt like old friends and comrades. Sara is strong, compassionate, determined, inquisitive, and intelligent – everything a nobleman’s wife shouldn’t be. She quickly became one of my favourite characters – as did Arent, whose imposing frame and bloody history belies a fiercely loyal and gentle heart. The supporting cast are equally well-realised – from the cocksure genius Samuel Pipps to lively, flirtatious Creesjie Jens and silent, watchful Cornelius Vos, I could envisage them all in my head and frequently felt as if I had been picked up and placed next to them when reading.
The vivid characterisation really helps during the (infrequent) moments when the plot starts to lag a little, and also allowed me to forgive the (in my opinion) slightly rushed ending. Saying to much about either of those points would be to spoil the novel but, for me, the chapters following a major late-book dramatic incident aboard the Saardam felt didn’t have quite the same energy, and I felt as if some of the decisions taken at the end of the novel didn’t fit with the established morality of the characters involved. This certainly didn’t diminish my overall enjoyment of the book however and many other readers may feel very differently about the ending!
Although there were the occasional moments where the pace dropped, The Devil and the Dark Water was – for me at least – a page-turning read. There were definitely times when I had to use all my willpower to stay in-line with our Write Reads book club schedule – it was so tempting to read ahead! Because of the contained setting and the number of characters, this is a novel that you have to settle in to a bit – I’d definitely urge anyone struggling with the pace at the beginning to stick with the book for about 70-100 pages, when the action really begins to surge ahead at speed!
I also really loved the way that the supernatural was used in this novel. Again, I don’t want to say too much because of the risk of spoilers but the novel does a great job at examining the way in which fear and superstition can be utilised to justify prejudice, greed and other uniquely human follies. The Saardam is a ship full of sinners – everyone has a secret, everyone is out to get something, and nearly everyone will betray the man, woman, or child next to them to do it – and Turton has done a fabulous job of making this largely dishonest, cutthroat, and untrustworthy collection of characters both intriguing and, in many cases, relatable. As such, The Devil and the Dark Water works well as both a damning morality tale and an observant commentary on societal hierarchies – in addition to being a highly entertaining novel, of course!
Superbly written and with an intricate yet tightly controlled plot, The Devil and the Dark Water is a worthy successor to Seven Deaths and marks Stuart Turton out as a writer unafraid to blur the lines between genres and defy the expectations of what a particular type of novel should be. Packed full of relatable and vivid characters – in all their messy and selfish glory – and with a richly imagined setting, this is sure to delight fans of Turton’s previous novel – and will hopefully entice many new readers to discover his work.
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton is published by Bloomsbury Raven and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
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