Not really being a fan of murder mystery or ‘who dunnit?’ plotlines, I was initially sceptical of Stuart Turton’s debut novel ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’. Yet, given its critical acclaim as winner of the Costa Book Awards 2018, I thought that there must be something more to it than the Cluedo storylines you would usually find within the genre. Safe to say, I was pleasantly surprised.
I was initially drawn in by the element of genre blurring and fantasy that the novel presents. This was sparked by the impossibility and intrigue in just the title: how can someone die seven times? Who is Evelyn Hardcastle? After a quick skim-read of the blurb, the novel immediately identifies itself as an almost dystopian and Black Mirror type murder mystery, and from there on in, I was hooked.
I particularly enjoyed how the reader is thrown immediately into the action in the first chapter as Turton describes murder, an attack and a chase. Placing such a climactic scene at the beginning of a novel that spans over 500 pages ensured that it was immediately apparent that the reader would not get bored. Moreover, it cleverly set up the cat and mouse style narrative that the structure of the novel rests upon. Moving on from this, the reader is barely given a chance to pause as Turton adds layer upon layer of confusion and intrigue as back stories and characters are woven seamlessly together. The novel is a perfect example of structure, one of the trickiest things to master as a writer.
Being such a hefty novel, I was equally interested to see how a murder mystery could be drawn out over that length of time. As the nature of the genre intends to suspend the reader in a state of intrigue until the very end, sustaining that amount of tension and mystery for that length of time would be no simple feat, even for the most experienced of writers. Needless to say, the longer the murder mystery, the greater the potential for dreaded plot holes and loose ends left untied. Therefore, it requires a lot of confidence, time and, I’d imagine, a detective style pin board with strings to keep track of what is going on. Given Turton’s phenomenally flawless execution, I found myself left astounded at how brilliantly the plot was constructed.
Instead of being a linear plot, as the title suggests, the murder happens seven times. Jumping around in time over the course of seven days, going backwards and forwards in time, is every writer’s worst nightmare. However, try as I might, I could not find one example of a plot hole or clue that did not reach a conclusion. It was a cinematic effect, like rewinding a video and rewatching it from a different camera angle such was the attention to detail. By constantly shifting viewpoint, I did not get bored reading the events of one day seven times over. In fact, I found myself searching for clues and details and contrasting them against previous viewpoints and days.
The consistency of the plot was flawless. Like any other modern reader, I get distracted easily. However, not once did I find myself asking ‘who is this?’ or ‘what relation does this character have to anyone else?’. This is due to Turton’s clever, but subtle, plot reminders and signposts to help the reader. It is often difficult to remind the reader of something that happened previously in the novel without it being too heavy handed, but I barely noticed the helpful pointers.
The novel also reads like an exercise in narrative voice. Maintaining an overall narrative voice of the main protagonist but contrasting that with the narrative voices of the seven different characters that he embodies, is incredibly difficult. It is sort of a first and third person point of view combined. However, the effect produced was that of extremely successful characterisation. As the main protagonist’s thoughts and feelings clash with those of his host, characterisation of external characters develops inwardly. Another very complex twist to an already intelligently constructed novel.
I would definitely recommend this novel. The state of perplexity and confusion that I was in throughout reading it is unlike anything that I have ever known. Even if you are not into murder mystery, this book is worth reading for its complexity of structure, plot and point of view. It was a pleasure to read, but I imagine a task and a half to write.