What better way to kick off the start of spooky season than with a review of The Devil and the Dark Water, the new novel from Stuart Turton? Murder on the high seas with demonic overtones make this an easy pick as the weather draws in and the wind picks up. This review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Raven Books (Bloomsbury).
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Anyone familiar with Turton’s debut novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, will no doubt have been eagerly anticipating the release of The Devil and the Dark Water since its announcement. Despite the shorter gestation of this follow up, fans can rest assured that it’s still packed full of twists and turns, even if the plot isn’t quite as complicated as the Groundhog Day meets Quantum Leap (Groundhog Leap? Quantum Groundhog?) madness of his Costa Award-winning effort.
One thing that definitely does carry over from Turton’s previous novel, however, is atmosphere. The Saardam, the ship chosen to transport our not-so-merry band of seafarers to Amsterdam from Batavia (modern day Jakarta) positively oozes with it. It’s a richly described vessel, with such incredibly evocative language used that you may well feel like lashing yourself down whilst reading, lest the pitching of the deck unbalance you from your chair. Smells, textures and sounds are all vividly described, contributing to an extremely memorable setting. It’s a ship borne across the waves by the superstitions of its crew, who are likewise extremely well realised. There’s a real charm to them in fact, even the most despicable ones (the brutish Johannes Wyck, for example), with them being broadly drawn yet stopping short of being walking clichés. The realities of ship life, and indeed the life of a sailor, are discussed, serving to add extra colour to the crew too. Their reputed Captain, snappy dresser Adrian Crauwels, is one of the many distinct and interesting supporting characters, alongside the menacing Governor General Jan Haan, the grizzled Guard Captain Jacobi Drecht and more besides.
Against this backdrop of a creaking ship crewed by surly miscreants looms the imposing figure of Lieutenant Arent Hayes. A former soldier turned mercenary, he’s one of the two main characters investigating the strange goings on onboard the Saardam. Ostensibly present to ensure the safety of his imprisoned investigative partner, the renowned Sammy Pipps (a man of Sherlockian deductive brilliance), Arent believes himself to be less than he is. Capable of much more than the brute force and violence which his size and strength often leads him to, he’s a wonderful and unconventional character for this sort of story, a detective who has had the role thrust upon him in the absence of his famous accomplice. This makes him much easier to empathise with as a character, with him tossed in at the deep end (so to speak) as he chases answers and struggles to piece things together. Alongside Arent, we have Sara Wessell, wife of the cruel Governor General. She idolises Pipps, with her daughter Lia and her devouring Arent’s accounts of their cases. Sara leaps at the chance to prove her own abilities, collaborating with Arent on the investigation, lending her considerable intellect and insight, as well as being capable of supporting him in his moments of self-doubt too. She is very much a caged bird, the circumstances finally giving her the chance to soar. For all the supernatural creepiness throughout, the supportive relationship between her and Arent acts as a real anchor for the story (no pun intended).
That supernatural creepiness adds yet another layer of atmosphere to the tale too, and it’s all built on an air of dark foreboding laid out in the first few pages. As a leper prophesises doom to the Saardam before spectacularly immolating on the docks, it’s clear that things are only going to ramp up from this dramatic opening, and Turton doesn’t disappoint. With the mysterious symbol of the demon Old Tom seeming to stalk crew and passengers and terrifying events occurring in its wake, the setting really comes into its own. The Saardam is truly alone at sea; with a jittery crew who are at each other’s throats at the best of times there’s a gradual ramping up of tension, dark promises and dreadful threats stalking them through the narrow, creaking corridors. The many mysteries, both in the histories of the characters and in their present situation, are as satisfyingly juicy as you would hope too, with extremely satisfying resolutions to boot.
With atmosphere in spades, an engaging mystery and a cast of characters so likeable you might well struggle to choose a favourite, The Devil and the Dark Water is a triumphant follow-up to one of the most widely loved novels of the last few years, whose shadow it escapes assuredly. Stuart Turton is truly a master of his craft, with his talent writ large on every darkly forbidding page of this devilishly good novel. The Devil and the Dark Water is out today, published by Bloomsbury’s Raven Books. You can order your copy through this affiliate link.