Gosh, how do you begin to try and describe a book like this one? The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is like a cross between an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery – say The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Hollow – and a story from Dr Who. Or maybe one of those old computer games where you have to find your way out of a labyrinth, but keep losing your life and have to start again.
The book opens with the main character running through the woods by night, desperate to save Anna, whoever she may be, while there’s a killer on the loose. He’s lost, but worst of all, he doesn’t know who he is either. He looks down at his hands and they are the hands of a stranger. He eventually finds safety in a crumbling stately home called Blackheath, and learns his name is Dr Sebastian Bell.
The next time he wakes up he’s someone else again – a pattern that repeats itself over the following days. All of the people he becomes are among the guest party who have congregated at Blackheath on the anniversary of the death of a young boy, Thomas Hardcastle, murdered nineteen years before. It isn’t until his first meeting with a man dressed as a mediaeval Plague Doctor (black cloak and a white beak-shaped mask) that he learns that he must discover who is going to murder Evelyn Hardcastle that night if he wants to escape Blackheath. He has eight days to complete the task, and in that time will inhabit eight different people, each of whom will offer different slants on the mystery. If he fails, he will lose his memory and have to start again from scratch.
Here’s what I liked about it:
- Aiden Bishop, our lost and confused protagonist, is an everyman kind of character. He knows no more than the reader does, so everything he learns the reader learns at the same time.
- The different people Aiden inhabits each have different quirks and skills. Lord Ravencourt is hugely fat, and has a hard time getting around the staircases and corridors of Blackheath, but he has a fine mind and sets in place the semblance of a plan. Rashton has the nous and physical fitness of a smart, young policeman, Dance has status and connections.
- Lots of odd things happen, things that are hard to fathom, but it all makes sense in the end. You can’t help admire the author’s talent for managing lots of balls in the air.
- Aiden never knows who he can trust. Just as you think he has an ally in one character or another, it seems they are not to be trusted after all. It doesn’t help when you’re somebody else all the time. This ups the stakes and keeps you hooked.
- Towards the end, when you think you’ve figured it out, the rug is whipped out from under you and there’s yet more mystery to uncover on different levels. Definitely an A-grade surprise ending.
Reading Seven Deaths is, however, hard work. You have to keep your wits about you and you can’t put it down for a few days and expect to remember everything when you pick the book up again. It’s just so complex. And that’s just the plot. I was also confused by the cast of characters – too many had names beginning with D – so I had to flip back and forth constantly to remind myself who was who.
Is it all worth it? Emphatically, yes! It is worth it because it turns the mystery novel on its head and rewrites the genre in an entirely new form. Gone are the traditional plot-points and mystery must-haves. And while there is so much to admire, it is oddly enjoyable too. Maybe at five hundred pages, it is a little long, but you’ll steam through the final chapters, pleased to have made the journey. Four and a half out of five from me.