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The Devil and the Dark Water


The Devil and the Dark Water

Following the explosive release of THE 7½ DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE, award-winning author Stuart Turton returns with THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER, a riveting and highly immersive story about a detective duo on the high seas, and the demon haunting their doomed ship.

The year is 1634, and the United East India Company has outposts spread across Asia, where they ship pepper, spices and silk back to Amsterdam. Their top shipping post lies in Batavia, where Governor General Jan Haan and his wife, Sara, live with their daughter, Lia. It is in Batavia where THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER begins, with the world’s greatest detective, Samuel Pipps, being dragged onto the Saardam, a ship bound for Amsterdam, in shackles. Guarding him from riotous townsfolk is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes. Where Samuel was once a trusted confidant of the Company’s ruling body, the Gentlemen 17, he has been arrested and sentenced to execution for a crime he may or may not have committed. Even worse, no one will tell him what, exactly, he is accused of. With the trip from Batavia to Amsterdam lasting a solid eight months, Arent knows he has a limited window in which to find out what his friend is accused of and prove him innocent.

Besides being lengthy, the journey to Amsterdam is dangerous: there is only one route, and any deviations from the route risk the wrath of pirates, the mercy of disease and the certainty of storms. The Saardam is full of several dignitaries, including General Haan and more than a few notable passengers and crew members, along with a mysterious item that Haan insists is as important as it is dangerous if left in the wrong hands. Naturally, the scene is a bit tense as the ship is loaded and packed with passengers, both noble and common.

"Right from the start, THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER reads like a Sherlock Holmes mystery populated by characters from an Agatha Christie novel and set inside a game of Clue."

Just as the Saardam is ready to set sail, a leper rises above the crowd with the message that his master, the “lord of hidden things, all desperate and dark things,” is hidden on board the ship, and he plans to bring merciless ruin to all who sail it. The leper’s appearance brings together two unlikely characters: brawny and brave Arent and progressive and stubborn Sara, the most noble woman on the ship (and, second to Samuel, the most imprisoned, albeit in a gilded cage). Right from the start, the two are the only ones who believe the leper’s warning. Unfortunately for them, the one man who could probably spot a hidden detail in the leper’s dress or catch the hint of an accent in his speech is Samuel, and he’s locked in the ship’s darkest corner awaiting execution in Amsterdam.

The Saardam sets sail under the (perhaps too eager) control of General Haan, but the danger is far from over. Soon after embarking, a devil’s mark appears on the ship’s sail, the very much deceased leper makes a reappearance, and strange hierarchies begin to emerge within the crew. On a ship full of sinners, each fueled by greed, rage and revenge, there are numerous opportunities for shifting pairings, tenuous alliances and, of course, attempts at retribution. As darker and more mysterious events continue to haunt the ship and bodies begin to pile up, it becomes obvious that everyone on board is in danger. And, in true Stuart Turton fashion, all have a motive, a secret past and a solid reason for believing that the devil has come for them. With the world’s greatest detective indisposed, it is up to Arent and Sara to find out what is plaguing the Saardam and why.

Right from the start, THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER reads like a Sherlock Holmes mystery populated by characters from an Agatha Christie novel and set inside a game of Clue. Arent, one-half of our heroic pairing, clearly idolizes Samuel and his superior brain, yet it is he who must play Sherlock on a dying ship. Sara is a perfect complement to Arent: soft where he is hard, quick-thinking where he is slow, and completely sure of herself where he is insecure. Together the two make an enviable crime-stopping duo, with Sara quickly becoming my favorite Turton character yet. She is headstrong and stubborn, but is also keenly aware of the bounds holding her within society --- she simply doesn’t care. I already knew that Turton was a genius, but I had no idea he was such a feminist, too. Sara is everything I could have hoped for in a book like this.

Readers of THE 7½ DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE will not be surprised by Turton’s ability to weave complex and intricate mysteries, but I suspect that even those who expect greatness from his sophomore release will be surprised by how much he has grown and matured as a writer. Where his debut was inventive and genre-bending, this latest effort is every bit as technically brilliant, but even more fleshed out and beautifully described. I had forgotten about his ability to skillfully expose his characters’ innermost fears and ambitions without information-dumping, but I was quickly reminded of his talent when I felt as though I knew about the motives of each and every character only a few chapters in. Rather than spoiling the surprises of the plot, these character reveals allowed me to fully immerse myself in the mystery of the book, and I loved guessing who would do what next.

Turton is an inventive and vivid storyteller, and while it should come as no shock that he excels at pacing and dealing out suspenseful plot twists, I found that THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER also exposed his ability to fully immerse readers within the narrative. Whether describing life on the Saardam or the body of a twice-killed leper, he has an innate ability to charm, scare and tease you all at once --- and that’s before you even get to marvel at his superb plotting and plain genius. If a mad scientist was set loose on a board game after reading nothing but the best mystery stories for a month, you would have as close to Stuart Turton as I think we will ever see again. But if you can’t pull those materials together, just go out and buy this book. You will not regret it.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 16, 2020

The Devil and the Dark Water
by Stuart Turton