Travel journalist Stuart Turton borrows and remixes the best of the genre in his fiction debut, The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is Stuart Turton's debut novel, but one wouldn't know it's a debut, as it's incredibly polished and self-assured, and an utterly delightful yarn. When you learn that Turton is primarily a travel journalist, the ease and flow of the narrative make that much more sense.
We open with an unnamed protagonist who has been shorn of his memories, stumbling in the woods around the mouldering English estate Blackheath sometime in the early 20th century, danger ringing in his ears and fear coursing through his veins. Blackheath is filled to bursting with all kinds of guests, ranging from the once-wealthy Hardcastle family, the owners of the place, to the guests they've invited to celebrate the return of the young heiress Evelyn Hardcastle from years of study in Paris.
But why is our protagonist here at Blackheath, mingling among suspicious servants, the family doctor, a playboy, servants, an artist, and a smattering of other complicated personages, and why can't he remember who he is? Most importantly: why does Evelyn Hardcastle die at the end of the day? Who killed her? Our protagonist soon learns that he's arrived at Blackheath to solve her murder, and over the course of the same day, repeated seven times, he will inhabit the bodies and psyches of the guests at Blackheath in order to find out who the murderer is.
The kind of writing Turton does at his day job has clearly prepared him to write mystery fiction in the vein of Agatha Christie, where he must juggle over a dozen characters whose motives are increasingly murky and intertwined as the story goes on. Ineed, The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle mixes some of the best elements of long-form journalism and thriller storytelling, opening with a mysterious protagonist who is robbed of his memory, thrust into a location he doesn't know much about, and forced to literally inhabit the roles of people he doesn't know, then trying to understand them, and their relationships with the people around them, from the inside-out.
A good travel journalist likely undergoes a similar process when developing an article; he has to acclimate himself to a new locale and try to understand its fundamental reality and truths, borrowing knowledge and insights from the people who live there in order to get a fuller picture of something once unknown. The journalist must be present, but must not allow his personality and perceptions to color the story he tells without acknowledging the role of his bias or the pitfalls of simply being a human being telling a story, rather than a direct transcription or didactic description of events.
There are moments of brilliance in The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, particularly when Turton allows his main character (whom we eventually learn is named Aiden) to fully make use of the hosts he's possessing at any given moment. (Keep the introductory "invitation" page bookmarked; you might need it for about the first half of the story as you try to keep all of the characters—and their assigned roles—straight in your head.) Every character at Blackheath, whether sinister or benevolent or some mix of the two, has a particular skill set or background that affects how Aiden can go about solving the riddle he's been tasked with; the narrative clicks together most satisfyingly when Aiden borrows the police constable's ability to recognize seemingly disparate facts as clues, or slips into the razor-sharp mind of the well-educated nobleman to better orchestrate cascading chains of events that will bring him ever closer to finding out who killed Evelyn Hardcastle. I don't play a lot of video games, but I imagine that playing an RPG where you can choose from among different characters in the same story is a similar experience to reading The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.
The clichés of such fiction are, of course, ever-present: there are torrid hidden affairs, instances of secret parentage, another murder or two thrown in there for good measure—the expected genre twists and turns galore. (To Turton's credit, the rules of the plot are established quickly and engagingly, sparing us from pages of explanatory exposition.) The particular genius in having a protagonist like Aiden, who is as unknown to himself as he initially is to us, is that we are never left in a position where we are clawing after Hercule Poirot, trying to keep up with a mind we know surpasses our own. What Aiden knows at any given point is what we know, both about his true nature and about the lingering mysteries of Blackheath, and so he develops as a character before our eyes in real-time as the novel progresses.
Because of the time-shifting nature of the mystery, there's a particular joy in seeing, for example, how a note Aiden finds while inhabiting one body early in the novel comes to be placed by himself in another host later for his own edification, almost reminiscent of the questions of time loops, and of cause and effect, raised in media like the 2016 movie Arrival. (No, I have not seen Groundhog Day, to which The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is undoubtedly being compared right alongside the nods to Agatha Christie).
Of course, there's a lot going on in this story that I'm not going to spoil in this review, because so much of the enjoyment derived from Turton's book comes from reading it yourself. My sole caveat, or one of the few smudges on my overall pleasurable reading of The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is that when we do learn why Aiden must solve this mystery, and how he came to Blackheath in the first place, it doesn't quite emotionally gel the way it ought. We ultimately learn who Aiden was when he first was tasked with solving the murder, and who he has become along the way, but because we first encounter Aiden shorn of any memories of his identity, we must be told by a third party character rather than shown, meaning that the catharsis brought about by the ballyhooed significant shift in Aiden's personality is experienced secondhand. (The questions of how much a person can change, and whether rehabilitation is possible, feel similarly underdeveloped by the end of the novel.) But ultimately, The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a rollicking, exciting, and well-paced period mystery that deserves a place on your bookshelf.