To say that The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is an unusual novel is a pretty laughable understatement. This debut from Stuart Turton is how I imagine having a fever dream on a rollercoaster might feel; it leaves you breathless and sweaty in a crumpled heap on the floor, yet somehow still strangely compelled to go round again.
And go round you will, because this book is properly bonkers. It's unnerving and intricate, and just when you think you're beginning to see where it's going it tricks you like a Covent Garden magician and leaves you howling with rage but completely addicted.
To distill the plot into a couple of lines is pretty darn tricky. Our man Aiden Bishop finds himself in the woods surrounding a crumbling mansion, the ominously named Blackheath House. Terrified and confused, he arrives at Blackheath to find a weekend ball in progress. To the other revellers, he is Sebastian Bell, a doctor and friend of the Hardcastles, Blackheath's presiding family, but at this point Aiden has no idea who he is or why he's there. What follows is a murder-mystery of epic proportions, with the added fun of body-swapping characters, knotty ethical battles and the revelation that Aiden must solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle in order leave the house. The trouble is, the murder hasn't happened yet, and it's also happened a thousand times already. I know! Bear with me. Aiden is trapped in a purgatorial morality tale, embodying a dizzying array of ever more hideous hosts whilst fighting to keep his own sanity, and he's taking you along for the ride.
I read Seven Deaths a few months back and at the time it made me think about Agatha Christie and Cluedo. I thought I was done with it, but I haven't been able to get it out of my head since. I've read it three times now and I'm still finding new clues and foreshadowing to fuel my obsession. I've hunted high and low for plot holes and have come up empty handed every time. It's a book that makes you want to find a misstep, but Stuart Turton dances just ahead of you the whole way, laughing like a mad scientist. I want to know who this Stuart Turton fellow is. How on earth did he come up with this bizarre idea? I read several interviews with him in preparation for writing this piece, and he freely admits that he plotted the novel in the same way one would plan an elaborate murder, with single-minded doggedness and thousands of Post-it notes.
It's very different to your usual crime novel. The process of reading it is so vivid that you feel as if you're following Turton's protagonists straight into depths of this hideous world he has so carefully created. Follow me for a second and imagine this:
You're dressing for dinner. The house is opulent, but crumbling. You button a starched shirt and straighten your bowtie, the smell of mothballs mingling with fine fragrance as you push open the door from your room onto the landing. There's something else in the air too; a strange atmosphere, tinged with something like excitement or possibly fear. You ignore this at first because you're looking forward to the dinner, to the wine and the company of your fellow revellers. The only thing that bothers you is that you can't quite remember who invited you here.
Your hand follows the bannister as you move down the landing and descend the stately staircase. Suddenly there's a wild commotion in the entrance hall and a man stumbles through the heavy door, looking half mad with fear. This, you learn, is Sebastian Bell. Except it isn't, it's Aiden Bishop, and nobody knows that yet, least of all him. You stand frozen on the landing before your curiosity gets the better of you, and you begin to follow him.
See?! Don't you want to read it? This is how close Stuart Turton brings his readers throughout Seven Deaths. You can smell the dank earth from the grounds of Blackheath House, the mildew from the furniture and the alcohol on the breath of each diabolical character Turton presents you with. It's one of the most visceral books I've ever read, and despite it's heft, I sort of hoped it would go on forever.
There's a lot of TV and film buzz surrounding the novel, but I worry that this medium might fail to capture how immersive this world actually is. The game comparisons are obvious, and I wasn't surprised to read that Turton himself is an avid gamer. I'm craving something that drags me even closer to Aiden's experience. I want to hold this book up to the light and analyse it from every angle and I can't imagine a better premise for an interactive story game.
The stunningly beautiful hardback that Raven Books have created comes complete with a detailed map that is a kind attempt to help the reader work out what in the merry hell is going on. Truth is, I've scribbled all over mine and I'm still not convinced I know which way is up. It's such a clever premise, one that creates a vivid link between the book and the reader to give a direct and unnerving sense of being an imposter in one's own body. It's rare that a conceptual novel is this slick and immediately compelling. The biggest take away I can offer is that this is such an incredibly fun book that you forgive Turton pushing you off balance when you least expect it, fleecing you at every turn and making you feel like maybe it was you who killed Evelyn all along. I was breathless and exhausted when I finished it, and turned it right over to start again. More please, Mr Turton. I'm waiting.