RogerBW's Blog

The Devil and the Dark Water, Stuart Turton 15 December 2020

2020 historical mystery with fantastic elements. In 1634, the Indiaman Saardam sets sail from Batavia on the eight-month journey to Amsterdam. Sammy Pipps, the world's greatest detective, is being transported to Amsterdam to answer for a crime that nobody seems to be able to name. His bodyguard, Arent Hayes, is determined to prove his innocence. And there are signs of a demon on board…

Is there a demon? Is this the sort of fictional setting where demons exist? I'm not going to say; the uncertainty is an important part of this, and as with Turton's previous book working out what's going on is a big part of one's enjoyment of the story. What's not in any doubt is that things that look demonic are happening; and many of the passengers and crew believe in demons, and will do frightful things to avoid becoming their victims.

This is a locked-ship murder mystery with storms, a ghost ship, a mysterious leper, romance, mutiny… all right, not for the sort of naval technical specialist who'd come here from Hornblower or Aubrey-Maturin because this one's also set aboard a ship. There are some deliberate tweaks (such as cutting the number of officers, and advancing bits of technology) to make the story work. The language is modern too, which I found disconcerting at times, especially the frequent use of "Okay".

All right, Hayes is perhaps a little too good for the era as he joins forces with the estranged wife of the returning governor to find out who's the intended victim and what they can do about it. But I really can't think of a better Accidental Seduction Speech than this one.

'Most men would say this isn't women's work.' There was no mistaking the challenge in her tone.

'My father was one of them,' admitted Arent. 'He taught me that women were frail creatures, purposely crippled by God that men might prove their virtue by protecting them. Sounded right enough, until I went to war and saw men pleading for their lives while women swung hoes at the knights trying to take their land.' His tone hardened. 'Strong is strong and weak is weak, and it doesn't matter if you wear breeches or skirts if you're the latter. Life will hammer you flat.'

A thing that I suspect I'm not meant to know about is the wreck of the Batavia in 1629. Not only are some of the events quite clearly inspired by that incident, some of the names are taken from there too: Hayes, Lucretia (as "Creesjie")…

It's not quite as powerful as Seven Deaths, and the ending in particular feels somewhat inconsistent with the established characters, but in spite of that I enjoyed it, and I'd recommend it with some reservations; read Seven Deaths first, though there's no narrative connection.

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See also:
Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton

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