Book Review: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Intriguing concept, a bit of a slow start
I’m not sure what I make of Stuart Turton’s novel, The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. I was intrigued by the premise but not terribly engaged with the start of the story.
Turton’s novel is an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, situated at Blackheath, a decrepit manor, where a murder occurred 19 years earlier. All the guests who had been present at the time of Thomas Hardcastle’s murder have been gathered again to “commemorate” the anniversary of his death.
Unlike a traditional murder mystery, this one involves a Groundhog Day-like motif: the hero, Aiden Bishop, must relive the day until he solves the murder. Part of the difficulty is that he hops into a new identity each day. One day, he is Dr Sebastian Bell, another he is the solicitor Edward Dance. He jumps from sketchy Jonathan Derby to the horribly beaten butler, Roger Collins.
Each time this occurs, Aiden has to adapt to the changed personality. He knows a bit about his host’s life through random memories, but often he is scrambling to adapt to the ever-shifting environment. Through the conceit of a repeated day, Turton is able to turn the camera on different groups of characters, so Aiden (and the reader) are seeing events through a new set of eyes.
So far, so good. I’m intrigued.
Turton’s style is engaging. His prose is precise and evocative, at times poetic. Also, he navigates the broad range of characters particularly well. While the main character Aiden is rediscovering his own personality, he is saddled with the quirks and prejudices of his hosts, as well. As a result, Aiden as Lord Ravencroft is an intellectually different character than the scoundrel Jonathan Derby.
Turton also layers the mystery with all sorts of new discoveries as well as misdirections. Even during the conclusion, when the pieces are coming together, there are surprises. His explanation for the Groundhog Day motif works quite well.
All in all, an enjoyable book. The story will stay with me.
And yet, I keep struggling with the paradox that I was both initially intrigued and unengaged. This struggle occurred mostly in the beginning quarter of the book where Turton is laying the groundwork. There are plenty of pieces to get into motion as well as a broad cast of characters to introduce. The author is careful not to load the reader down with too much information.
Perhaps my problem with the first part of the book is that it focuses on Aiden as Dr Sebastian Bell. He has woken to a strange identity, doesn’t know who he is or where he is, and he is visibly shaken by an inexplicable attack. The episode acts as something of a red herring, not insignificant, but it does not carry as much weight as what comes after. It feels like the author is deliberately misdirecting the reader from important details so that the reader can adjust to the story’s framework. It’s like getting into a tub of cold water and waiting for the temperature to rise.
But rest assured that the effort to keep going with the story is worth it. By the midpoint, I was hooked. The mystery kept me guessing, and the conclusion was satisfying, which definitely makes it worthwhile.