The Devil and the Dark Water (2020) by Stuart Turton

An impressive, must-read thriller from author Stuart Turton, THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER is the sequel to THE 7½ DEATHS Involving EVELYN HARDCASTLE, and it finds an international investigative team traversing a darkened ocean on a ship in a horrifying mystery of sea monsters, curses, and pirates.

Pepper, spices, and silk are being sent from Asia to Amsterdam where the United East India Company has many outposts. This takes place in 1634, when the Company’s outposts are located across Asia.

The governor general, Jan Haan, and his wife, Sara, and their daughter, Lia, live in Batavia, where their most important centre is located. The world’s greatest detective, Samuel Pipps, is aboard the Saardam, destined for Amsterdam, being dragged into the depths of a devilish new case, along with everyone around him.

THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER begins on Batavia, where he’s arrested. His best friend and bodyguard, Arent Hayes, defends him from rowdy locals. After joining the Gentlemen 17 and serving them for many years, Samuel was thrown in prison and found guilty of committing a crime, even though he is unsure if he is guilty.

And, even worse, he has no idea what he’s being accused of since no one would tell him. Arent realises that he has a narrow window in time to discover what his friend is being accused of and clear his name.

Aside from taking long, the route to Amsterdam is risky, as there is only one way to go. You must take that path, or risk being attacked by pirates, catching disease, or encountering storms.

There is a substantial list of guests in the ship, including General Haan and many other noteworthy individuals, as well as an artefact which General Haan believes may be lethal if it fell into the wrong hands. The ship is naturally anxious because of the guests it has aboard: both nobles and commoners.

A leper suddenly emerges from the crowd with a message that his lord, who is responsible for all “hidden, desperate, and terrible things,” is on board the ship, and he’s going to visit disastrous destruction on those who sail it.

The unusual duo of Arent, the chivalrous and burly crewman, and Sara, the plucky and fiercely independent woman, is formed by the meeting of two characters in a leper’s tale (and, second to Samuel, the most imprisoned, albeit in a gilded cage).

The leper warns them immediately that they’re in danger, and the two are the only ones who heed his warning. They’re out of luck since Samuel is in the depths of the ship, bound for Amsterdam and execution.

And if there was anyone capable of seeing the subtle clues hidden in the leper’s attire or in his voice, it would be Samuel.

Despite General Haan’s anticipation, the Saardam’s journey is far from ended as it is already underway under the General’s leadership.

A few days after setting sail, a nasty design appears on the ship’s sail, the dead leper appears again, and odd leadership structures begin to develop among the crew. Even on a boat packed with sinners, every single one of them is greedy, violent, and looking for revenge, it is possible to see a major shift in partnerships or people getting back at one another.

As more frightening and disturbing occurrences stalk the ship, it becomes clear that everyone on board is in jeopardy. It’s the Stuart Turton style to give everyone a backstory, a character reason to believe they’re going to be personally taken by the devil, and a logical rationale for why the devil is after them.

With Sherlock in Scotland, Arent and Sara are on their own in discovering the secrets of the Sauropolis’ growing menace.

It reads like a Sherlock Holmes mystery in which characters from an Agatha Christie novel and people playing Clue appear. On board the ill-fated ship, Arent idolises his boss and devotes his life to Samuel, although he is the one who must impersonate Sherlock and solve a mystery with no hope of solving it.

Sara is an excellent counterbalance to Arent: she is strong where he is weak, fast-thinking where he is slow, and confident where he is uncertain. The two combine to make an incredible crime-stopping combo, with Sara, who is rapidly becoming my favourite Turton character, being especially well developed.

Although she is forceful and obstinate, she is equally cognizant of the restrictions of her world. She just chooses to ignore them. I’d heard Turton was intelligent, but I never suspected he possessed such progressive values. Everything I’d ever want to find in a book like this, I found in Sara.

Those who have read The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (and everyone else) know that their brilliant mind for complicated mysteries will only become better and more inventive. But the real measure of growth is that he’s moved on from simply improving to honing his craft to a more expressive medium.

On top of the similar level of technical brilliance that his debut had, this new effort is also more fully realised and floridly written. After I’d forgotten about his knack for successfully developing characters without info-dumping, I was reminded of his brilliance within only a few pages of reading, when I began to really understand the objectives and motivations of each character.

Instead than ruining the suspense of the storey, these discoveries helped me become engrossed in the story’s mystery, and I enjoyed theorising what the characters might do next.

With its beautiful use of description and exceptional plotting, it’s no surprise that author Richard Turton is great at storey building. Though his greatest strengths may be obvious (character development, plot momentum, etc.), I’ve found that his mastery of the art of world-building has the ability to take readers out of their lives and place them fully into the narrative.

No matter the topic, from life in Saardam to the corpse of a leper who’s died twice, he charms, frightens, and amuses all at once. You get to admire his amazing talent before discovering his vast imagination and brilliant strategies. If Stuart Turton had become really into mystery stories and then was left alone with a board game for a month, he’d be the closest we’ll ever get to seeing someone like that again.

Still, you should try to compile your research first, but if you don’t think you’ll succeed, just get this book.

You will be delighted.

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