Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

ehGosh, 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.

 

Book Review: The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall

greenwoodsWho wouldn’t want to live in an English rural backwater where there’s a little branch railway-line long since mothballed just asking to be restored? You could join a small society of passionate enthusiasts and dedicate all your spare time to finding engines and carriages, refurbishing and reupholstering and essentially going back in time.

In The Last of the Greenwoods, Zohra Dasgupta is a young postal worker, whose best friend Crispin has roped her into a group of railway restoration buffs. She’s only 25 and lives with her parents over their corner shop so seems an unlikely candidate for a pastime you’d imagine to be enjoyed largely by male retirees. The railway runs through Crispin’s father’s land, what there is left of it, formerly an estate of some standing. Crispin lives here with his father in a crumbling ruin of a once splendid mansion, camping out in a still liveable corner. Continue reading “Book Review: The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall”

Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

I was going to see the movie but wasn’t quite quick enough. Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci plus London – I always like London stories – seemed a winning combination. Then there was that nagging feeling I always get: You can’t watch the movie until you’ve read the book. And by the time I’d got hold of the book, the movie had moved on from our local cinema and that was that. But at least I still had the book.

And what a powerful read it is. Not that this was surprising – I’d read McEwan before (Atonement, Amsterdam, Sweet Tooth) and he’s a master craftsman. In a nutshell, The Children Act follows Fiona Maye, a judge who presides over family cases, many of them with complex moral issues at heart, and this causes problems with her marriage.

One case in particular, where she had to rule in favour of the separation of baby Siamese twins, leading to the death of one, but safeguarding the survival of the other, caused Fiona to draw away from her husband Jack. So at the start of the book, he is telling her he plans to have an affair unless they can somehow patch things up.ˇ

But Fiona is unable to talk to Jack, she has so much on her place, and his planned infidelity enrages her – surely he must have someone lined up already and this is infidelity in itself. When he packs a bag, it is easier for her to change the locks on the flat and then focus on her current case. Continue reading “Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan”