Source: Review copy
Publication: 1st October 2020 from Raven Books
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.
Murder, mystery, magic and mayhem on the high seas from Stuart Turton. What more could you possibly want? This rich tale is impeccably told. It is bold, dazzling, full of derring-do and impossible puzzles. With strong echoes of Conan Doyle in his two principal detectives, Arent Hayes and Samuel Pipps, Turton brings us a 17th Century swashbuckling story replete with characters with missing body parts and strange and fearsome tales to tell.
Is there a devil on the ship? It certainly seems so. With his brilliant partner Pipps locked up in a dank hole below decks, can steadfast Arent Hayes solve this mystery solo? Sara Wessel is travelling with her husband from Batavia to Amsterdam where their fortunes are to be seriously enhanced, but from the outset it is clear that that there is the devil’s work afoot to ensure the voyage of the Saardam is not successful.
Turton does not stint in using his rich, descriptive powers to give us an olfactory tour of the lower decks in this wondrously atmospheric, historical murder mystery. A ship, of course, provides the same opportunities as a locked room when it comes to murder and Turton absolutely makes the most of each and every opportunity to deceive and deflect as his beautiful character populated novel embarks on a most dangerous journey.
As with The Seven Deaths, it is the depth and quality of the characterisation that shines through in this book and there are sufficient intricately drawn characters here to keep our minds busy even as we try to work out which are good and which may be the devil incarnate.
Even as we get nowhere near the solution, this doom laden ship is sailing towards a dramatic event. The motley crew are threatening mutiny when they’re not knifing each other and something nasty is whispering in the ears of anyone who will listen. As an exercise in mass hysteria, it is brilliant to behold.
Turton builds up an enviable cast of characters, some of whom are quite grotesque, complete with backstories, motivation by the bucketful and all in all it feels like we are in the midst of a Matthias Grünewald painting.
You can’t help but be drawn to the principal protagonists though and before the first chapter has ended you are already half in love.
Fantastic prose that I just wanted to wallow in creates a luscious novel that winds itself round your heart and may just squeeze the life out of you before you know you’re caught.
Verdict: Can you tell I loved it? Turton has a delightfully dark and delicious mind that paints in colourful oils all over his pages. This book is rich, vivid and fiendishly clever. Buy it, you will not regret it.
Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, won the Costa First Novel Award and the Books Are My Bag Readers Award for Best Novel, and was shortlisted for the Specsavers National Book Awards and the British Book Awards Debut of the Year. A Sunday Times bestseller for three weeks, it has been translated into over thirty languages and has also been a bestseller in Italy, Russia and Poland. Stuart lives near London with his wife and daughter.