To be honest, ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ would also serve as autumn fun, winter fun or spring fun, it just so happens that I read Turton’s debut novel during the summer and I enjoyed it more than I can say. As the attractive cover suggests, this murder mystery consciously draws on the great tradition of Agatha Christie style period crime novels. As the baffling title implies, it adds its own touch of originality, with a delightful level of time-travelling confusion doing to classic crime what ‘Groundhog Day’ did to the formulaic rom-com.
Like any good whodunit, the set-up is fiendishly confusing, but I’ll do my best. We begin with a frightened man in a forest. Utterly lost, he tries to make sense of the mysterious and often violent strangers he meets as he finds his way to a nearby stately home. First is the mystery of who this amnesiac protagonist actually is, but compounding and then overshadowing this is the reveal of his mission – our narrator will inhabit a series of guests as they re-live one tragic day at the isolated Blackheath House. He has seven days and seven hosts to solve the mystery of Evelyn Hardcastle’s death, due to occur under the same tragic circumstances at the height of the evening’s grand ball.
If this sounds overly complex, believe me, I’ve only scraped the surface. There are cryptic friends and surprise enemies, often embodied by our very own narrator as he encounters, leaves clues and sets up puzzles for future and past hosts. Turton handles the multiple timelines and self-conscious world-building with an aplomb reminiscent of Diana Wynne-Jones (anyone who has read her incredible Chrestomanci books or ‘Archer’s Goon’ will understand what high praise this is). Adding to the joy is the humour and pathos of our hero’s plight; with each passing day he becomes more accustomed to his environment, but complacency has its own dangers as his inner self becomes increasingly vulnerable to the infectious malevolence of Blackheath House and his various hosts. Wonderfully, these hosts in turn have an emotional and practical impact on his investigation. Conventional fictional detectives do sometimes have to struggle in their quests for truth, but I’ve never read of one afflicted with an unexpectedly short attention span during a stake-out or a characteristic compulsion towards sadism hindering his attempts to help a damsel in distress.
‘The Seven Deaths’ even charmed me into accepting its use of the present tense throughout. I’ve previously set my limit on toleration for this affectation at 150 pages. Turton smashes this. His writing is not only fluid, fluent and compelling, but is also completely appropriate to the task – how could an amnesiac hosted spirit wandering through a complex timeline and around a closed-house mystery express himself if not in the first person present tense? I don’t expect to come across this perfect set of conditions very often in my reading, but I hope I am generous enough to applaud the author when I see them.
I hope that, when balanced by my babbling enthusiasm, the confusion of this blog post will not put anyone off the book. Yes it is complex and almost overwhelmingly ambitious, but it succeeds in achieving its own incredible aims. I don’t expect to read many odder books this summer, but I’d be delighted to encounter even a handful that can bring me such pleasure.