The Devil and the Dark Water
By Stuart Turton
Published in 2020
Set in 1634 on board an East India Company merchant vessel, this novel is a locked room mystery named a Best Book of 2020 by several publications.
The Governor General of Batavia is returning home to Amsterdam to take his place among the Gentlemen 17, the elite who rule Amsterdam’s commerce. With him are his wife Sara, daughter Lia, and mistress Cressjie. Unknown to them, a demon named Old Tom also slipped on board and is hiding among the passengers and crew. As livestock is slaughtered and unholy storms beset the ship, nearly everyone on board hears Old Tom whispering in the night, promising their fondest dreams in return for obedience to him.
The only man capable of solving the mystery is Sammy Pipps, who is locked in the brig for an unknown crime. It falls to his bodyguard, Arent Hayes, and Sara to uncover the identity of the person possessed by Old Tom before everyone on board is doomed.
This is the second book by the author of The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle which, if you’ve read many of my reviews, I hold up as the gold standard for mysteries. This is not the same book.
I don’t say that scathingly – they are simply very different books. And that’s where my compare and contrast ends so I can focus on this novel.
I am not well versed on sailing, or Batavia, or merchant vessels, or , to some extent, this time period. Despite the fact that the author admits he changed several historical facts to fit the story, and I’m a historic novelist who shudders when I see something historically inaccurate, I didn’t bat an eye. I’d have to say he made the right decision because I was swept up in the story from start to finish with nothing jumping out at me that I felt the need to Google (this is actually a common occurrence for me when reading historical fiction). From a leper being set alight on the docks, to a mysterious eighth ship that joins the convoy, to a truly unexpected shipwreck, this was an intriguing read. The historic details were there, but they were sprinkled in expertly enough that they didn’t overwhelm the main course. The author didn’t have to explain anything, I could see it. And that’s always key to my reading enjoyment.
As for the characters – there’s a lot of them, all with their own rich backstories and driven by their own devils. Without throwing out a spoiler, I will advise you not to get too attached to any of them since a lot of them don’t make it to the end. I loved the spin on Sammy, a 17th century Sherlock Holmes. I’d also like to see a spin-off novel for Lia when she’s older.
My gripes? Only a few. The author played fast and loose with POV occasionally, weaving between characters in some chapters or scenes but not in others, and then moving to a more omniscient narrator a few paragraphs later. I rolled with it but it was jarring in the beginning. Also, while the reveal tied up all the loose ends, it all happened in one chapter/scene and almost felt like a convenient set up just to spit it all out. I actually have a little more to say about how that last scene played out, but I’d be throwing out a spoiler so I won’t. Suffice it to say the ending was not quite as fulfilling as I’d hoped, but I was far from throwing the book against the wall.
Final word, I couldn’t have kept all those plot strings/back stories/MOs in the air, then ironed them all out at the end, so I have to applaud anyone who does. I’ll continue to look for more by this author.
I rated this book four stars.
Until next time, thanks for visiting.
My rating system:
5 stars – Wow, I could not stop thinking about this book and/or I wish I’d writtn it.
4 stars – This was an awesome novel, I’d recommend it to friends.
3 stars – This was a good novel, I will look for more by this author.
2 stars – An okay novel, but I probably won’t look for anything else by the author.
One must never set up a murder. They must happen unexpectedly, as in life.Alfred Hitchcock