Title: The Devil and the Dark Water
Author: Stuart Turton
‘Know that my master sails aboard the Saardam. He is the lord of hidden things; all desperate and dark things. He offers this warning in accordance with the old laws. The Saardam‘s cargo is sin and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam.’
Samuel Pipps, the most famous detective of his age, is being taken to Amsterdam to be executed for a mysterious crime he might, or might not, have committed. With him is his friend and bodyguard Arent Hayes, determined to prove his innocence.
But before the ship sets sail, a leper places a curse on the ship and its voyage and then bursts into flames, and soon after the departure mysterious things start to take place on the ship. Rumours of a devil stalking in the darkness start circulating among the crew, and with Pipps locked up in a cell, it falls to Arent to find out what’s really going on and solve a mystery that seems to tie all of the passengers in one way or another.
A closer look
A detective duo, sea travel, and a mystery that could or could not be supernatural, all of that delivered by the author of one of my favourite books of last year?
This book promised to be everything I could ask for, so the fact that I came out of it feeling burning disappointment is at least partly on me. But don’t let me get ahead of myself; let’s start from the beginning.
We start the book with Samuel – Sammy – Pipps being dragged through the streets of Batavia in chains to board the Saardam, the East India Company ship that will bring him to Amsterdam to face his judgement and execution. Following him is his bodyguard and friend Arent Hayes, who’s trying to protect him from jeers and stones thrown at him by the angry mob. When they finally reach the docks, a leper casts a curse on the ship and its passengers, bursts into flames, and is mercifully killed by Arent himself.
While most of the passengers try to forget about the leper’s words, Arent and a few other people keep thinking them over, especially when strange signs start appearing early on during the voyage – symbols drawn on the sails, whispers in the dark, and other things that have seemingly no logical explanation. Is there really a devil stalking the ship, or is it just the work of man?
The plot is probably the strongest part of the book: while it’s by no means fast-paced, it raises enough questions to keep the reader engaged for the duration of the story, and it’s particularly interesting when the questions shed light on the past of some of the characters, revealing surprising connections.
The mystery itself is well constructed and hard to guess. Due to the amount of characters we follow, a lot of threads are inevitably not connected to the main mystery. It becomes a bit too much at times, but their presence help to muddle the waters and keep us guessing. It’s also unsure whether the mystery has a supernatural element or not, and that adds another layer to the story – and quite a bit of atmosphere, in my opinion.
The final twist came out of nowhere for me, but I guess a seasoned mystery reader might have guessed something like that was afoot.
The atmosphere and the claustrophobic feeling of the ship are also a nice point, even though the way the ship itself is run doesn’t hold up to a close analysis. The author himself admits in the acknowledgements that making it more historically accurate would have detracted from the story and complicated it unnecessarily, and I agree that the cast of people the reader needs to keep in mind is large enough as it is. It’s not something that bothers me that much, to be honest, but if you’re an expert of this kind of things, just keep in mind that it might not satisfy you entirely.
When we start talking about the characters, though, I get a little frustrated. Turton puts a large cast in front of us, and switches from one perspective to another frequently and without hesitation. I like multi-perspective stories, but in order to really enjoy them each character must have a clear personality, and this time around the protagonists were cliché or simply not developed enough. Even Arent, who’s supposed to be the main protagonist, feels like a different person when we’re in his perspective and when we see him from someone else’s point of view. I wouldn’t mind if that was due to a different way of perceiving him, but it truly felt like he was acting inconsistently in some cases.
I am also slightly disappointed by the little presence of Sammy. I was expecting to follow a detective duo and I was there for the friendship, but Sammy spent most of his time locked up and the detective duo we end up following are Arent and Sara, one of the passengers. And, let me tell you, I wasn’t thrilled about it.
As much as Sara is an interesting character and even embodies some feminist ideals, I sadly didn’t care much for her.
And don’t get me started on the romance! It doesn’t usually bother me that much, but it felt rushed and not realistic at all. These people have never met before, but ten minutes in the presence of one another and they are showering each other with compliments – in their thoughts, so at least there’s no embarrassing dialogue. It was also totally irrelevant for the plot, and the story would have worked out just fine without it.
There were also a few inaccuracies that took me out of the story. I read a few reviews and none of them mentioned it, but it’s something that really bothers me, more than botched characterisation, clichés, or a predictable plot.
There is a character who wears an eye-patch because he lost an eye, but in more than one scene he was talked about as if he still had two. People feel “his eyes” on them, or they meet his “sparkling eyes”, and that made me question more than once if I had missed something. Then in a different scene he would be described with his eye-patch again, or would be thinking about the time he lost his eye, so I was just confused and annoyed.
Same thing with another scene: Arent is working the pumps because the ship is taking on water and he stops only at dusk due to exhaustion, but another character a few lines later said that he worked “all night”.
There are a few more scene like these. It’s nothing major, really, but it bothers me that these inaccuracies haven’t been spotted by anyone before the book was published.
I got to the point where I was reading mostly to get to the bottom of the mystery, and the only character I still kind of cared about was Sammy – which is a lot to say, considering he’s quite marginal in the story and appears way less than anyone else. Still, I felt like he had at least a bit more personality than the others.
In terms of characterisation, the ending also destroyed what little I had been able to grasp about Arent’s personality, which is his unshakeable sense of justice. I don’t want to get into spoilers, though; if you have read the book, you know what I’m talking about.
Despite everything I’ve said, the book was still an enjoyable experience for me, but it was tainted by my expectations and the fact that I couldn’t connect to the characters. My edition of the book has also a short extra part at the end, in which Arent narrates in first person his first encounter with Sammy, and his personality is so much more vivid in those few pages than in any part of the novel itself. It almost makes me wish that the whole novel was narrated in first person.
Still, the mystery itself is worth the read, and plenty of people have truly loved the book, so who am I to discourage you?
About the author
Stuart Turton debuted in 2018 with The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, a mystery in which the protagonist keeps living the same day over and over again, waking up every time in the body of a different guest at the party that will inevitably end up with the death of Evelyn Hardcastle. The only way to break free of this cycle is to solve the mystery of Evelyn’s murder, but nothing and no one are quite what they seem.
I loved this book, and that’s probably the reason why I had such high expectations for The Devil and the Dark Water. The mystery was brilliant, and the way the characters cross each other’s paths is just as good – and I bet it took a lot of planning on the part of the author. An excellent debut novel, highly recommended.