The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle - Stuart Turton
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle - Stuart Turton *****
On the one hand, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a classic English country manor murder-mystery, but there's a clue in the title that there's perhaps a little more than this being a little different from the usual Agatha Christie pastiche. In as far as the murder-mystery question of who killed Evelyn Hardcastle at Blackheath manor, the usual suspects that can be found in a select group of notable society figures each with dark secrets are all in place. Explaining how Evelyn Hardcastle dies seven times however is a little more complicated.
The fact that everything is not entirely what it seems is evident in the way that the reader is rather jarringly and unsettlingly thrown straight into a troubling and intriguing situation. Sebastian Bell finds himself inexplicably in the middle of the woods, screaming the name of a woman who appears to be being pursued by an attacker. He doesn't know how he got there, and for a while can't even remember his own name. It's a bit like being handed the controls to a video game where you don't know your character or the rules and find yourself struggling to get a grasp of a situation that is clearly beyond your control. Don't worry though, you'll have another six lives to work out who killed Evelyn Hardcastle seven times, because when Sebastian wakes up the next day he finds he is no longer Sebastian but another person entirely.
And Sebastian - or Aiden as he believes he is really called - and indeed the reader, is going to need every one of those lives and the 500-odd pages of Stuart Turton's ambitious novel, because the reason why Evelyn Hardcastle is killed is going to take a bit of figuring out. What is certain is that the gathering is a select one, that all of the guests have been assembled there for a reason, and that the ostensible reason is itself rather strange. Young Thomas Hardcastle, the son of the owners of Blackheath and brother of Evelyn, was murdered on the estate nineteen years ago in circumstances that were never entirely explained. There's more than just a commemoration going on here. And indeed there's more than just a sequence of events that will also lead to the death of Evelyn Hardcastle. Come to that, there are more deaths than just the seven that Evelyn Hardcastle is fated to suffer.
The biggest mystery is of course how Aiden comes to be in this very unusual Groundhog Day situation where he 'inhabits' a different character each day. Even then, the rules are not as straightforward as that and he doesn't inhabit characters strictly sequentially one day at a time. He is also aware of the presence of an ominous figure in an old Plague Doctor costume who is monitoring his actions and who warns him that he will continue to play out this bizarre situation on repeat until he solves the mystery of the murder. Who knows even how many times he has already been through this? It could be a game of some sort - a virtual reality game - but everything feels real enough and who can tell whether there aren't actual consequences in the 'real-world' if that is indeed even the case. With a footman out to kill each of Aiden's characters, the threat certainly feels very real and immediate.
A more obvious answer to the conundrum is that The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a literary meta-fictional exercise. It's the experience of an author who has to put aside his own voice and adopt the character and personality of each of his characters as he puts them through a murder-mystery situation. You could see this in how the characters personalities start to take on a greater life of their own as we delve deeper into the mystery and start to observe and react to the actions of other characters. Or, if you like, Aiden's experience of being placed within the personality of another character could be seen as a way of exploring how we can be prisoners of our own natures; wanting to act in one way but finding that there are deeper impulses that determine how we behave. None of these conceptual purposes however really intrude on the novel as a work of murder-mystery fiction with a bit of a twist.
There is no shortage of ways then of considering what the purpose of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is, and there are plenty of surprises, secrets, murders and conspiracies to keep you guessing, but Stuart Turton's novel can be just as infuriating as is intriguing. To say that it is convoluted is to state the obvious, and your patience will be tested trying to keep up not only with who each of Aiden's characters are and what part of each day they are occupying sequentially and simultaneously - to say nothing of the host of other cast members - but trying to work out how much influence the characters have over a repeated sequence of events is also difficult to determine.
What keeps you reading is of course the need to get to the bottom of this mystery. The mystery of who killed Evelyn Hardcastle (and her brother) does prove intriguing enough on its own, but the reason why the reader is going to stick with this through all the complications and potential confusion is a need to understand just how this peculiar game-like situation has been established, who is behind it, what its purpose is and what we are going to find at the end of it. Evidently, you'll have to read that yourself to find out, but despite the high expectations it sets, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle delivers brilliantly on its idea, with an ending that doesn't leave you feeling cheated for all the hard work you have to put into keeping up with it. It's even rather more touching, uplifting and redeeming than you suspect it might be from the other horrors it alludes to and contains.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is published by Bloomsbury/Raven Books on 8th February 2018