Some books are a gift to the marketing department. The folks at Raven, a newish crime imprint at Bloomsbury, have described this one as “Gosford Park meets Inception, by way of Agatha Christie”. It’s a good tagline, but they might just as well have chosen “An Instance of the Fingerpost meets Battle Royale via Punchdrunk theatre”, or “Quantum Leap crossed with The Bone Clocks and Zork”, or “Cluedo meets Groundhog Day by way of The GCHQ Puzzle Book (with a twist!)”.
So yes, it is derivative, but that’s not meant as a criticism. Stuart Turton, a debut novelist, has drawn on half a dozen familiar tropes from popular culture and reworked them into something altogether fresh and memorable. His murder mystery takes place in the classic setting of the 1920s country house, but right from the start, you know you’re far from Hercule Poirot territory.
The narrator wakes up in a dripping forest, wearing someone else’s dinner jacket and, he soon realises, someone else’s body. He has no memory of who he is or how he came to be trapped inside this stranger. Twigs crack behind him. A heavy object is dropped into his pocket and a voice rasps in his ear: “East.” Once alone, he pulls out the object; it’s a silver compass.
Eventually our man learns that his name is Aiden Bishop, and he is here for a reason. A masked figure informs him tersely that today, a murder will be committed – a murder that won’t seem like a murder. Bishop has eight chances to solve it. He will relive the same day eight times, but each morning he’ll wake up in a different body, or “host”. He’ll remember his experiences in the previous hosts, but if he doesn’t give the masked figure the name of the killer by day eight, he’ll be returned to day one, memory wiped, and have to start all over again. As indeed he already has done, hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.
In due course, Bishop is told he has rivals: two of the other members of the country house party are also hosts to foreign souls, tasked with unveiling the murderer. Only one of the three can succeed and thereby be freed from the time loop. And, just to keep him on his toes, he is being sought by a psychopath, a knife-wielding footman who targets each of the hosts in turn. Looks like a busy day for Mr Bishop.
This summary can hardly do justice to the mind-boggling complexity of the plot. There is a twist on nearly every page, and there are more than 500 pages. It’s a rare reader who won’t be hopelessly flummoxed well before the halfway point. And what a pleasure it is to give oneself up to the book, to be met with discoveries and thrilling upsets at every turn in the labyrinth. Not only is nothing what it seems, it’s not even what it seems after it’s been revealed to be not what it seems. “Fate’s leading me around by the nose,” says Bishop ruefully, and we can only sympathise.
There is more to chew on here than just the mechanics of a time-travel detective story. Bishop, to his dismay, finds that his hosts’ personalities threaten to overrule his own at times, and some of them are nasty pieces of work, making him do things he would never normally countenance. “Every man is in a cage of his own making,” a character sagely remarks, and haven’t we all felt at times like impostors in our own bodies? There’s a moral aspect to Bishop’s dilemma, too. He likes Evelyn, and feels bound to prevent her murder – but how can he unmask her killer, and thus gain his freedom, unless the killing takes place?
Here, Turton touches on a problem central to his genre: you can’t have a murder mystery without a murder, which is by nature a brutal act that doesn’t always fit within the confines of a traditional detective story. He ingeniously uses his time-loop idea to get around it. Several times he likens his characters to “shadows cast upon the wall” – and indeed, since each morning brings the victims back to life, the act of murder here comes to seem no more dreadful than flicking off a light switch.
The price Turton pays for this is a loss of emotional engagement on the reader’s part. But as an intellectual thriller, the book can’t be faulted, and in the end, it’s the story that triumphs, with a series of last-minute revelations as dazzling as the finale of a fireworks show. I’m not sure it entirely makes sense, when all’s said and done – but who cares? If you want to work it all out, you’ll need to buy an entire sticky-note factory. Much more fun to just go along for the ride.
- The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (Raven, £14.99). To order a copy for £12.74, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian