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The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

5 out of 5: Readable / compulsive / immersive / fun / historical fiction / crime / thriller / charismatic main characters

Looking for a brilliantly immersive page-turner? Read on. 

It’s 1634, and The Devil and the Dark Water begins on the island of Batavia, a Dutch trading colony, where the main characters are speedily introduced as they board a ship bound for Amsterdam. One of the many pleasing things about this novel is that it doesn’t hang about. 

Samuel Pipps, we learn, is a brilliant detective but has recently fallen from grace and become a prisoner. A mercenary soldier, Arent Hayes, watches over him protectively. The unlikeable governor is obsessed with a mysterious object called ‘The Folly’ that the ship is transporting, and which it turns out Pipps and Hayes successfully recovered when it was stolen. The governor’s wife boards with her daughter Lia and a heart full of hatred for her husband. The governor’s mistress arrives. Also boarding is a mysterious noblewoman called Countess Delvhain. And so it goes on.

The social dynamics are brilliantly drawn; the sailors resent the passengers and everyone resents the nobles in their private cabins. The voyage will take eight months and it seems unlikely that everyone will get along. Worst of all a leper pronounces a curse on the ship before burning to death on the docks, striking fear into every heart but that of Samuel Pipps, who is calmly intrigued as to how the leper came to issue his warning in the first place.

“What a breathtaking rush of a book this is, with so many enjoyable plot twists and turns I was totally dazzled.”

It goes from set-piece to set-piece and one reveal genuinely sent a shiver down my spine. Not liking Agatha Christie enough to be interested in the reinvention of the genre I skipped Turton’s first book, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, but Laura talked it up on episode 74 of the pod. Now I’ve read this I see what I’ve missed out on. It’s a lot of fun. 

Turton handles his large cast of characters so well I never lost track and all of them are morally ambiguous enough to keep the reader guessing. 

The book felt clever and original even as it played with the classic conventions of detective fiction and seafaring yarns (think Sherlock Holmes crossed with Black Sails). One enjoyable recurring element of the narrative is the way Pipps and Hayes are given a backstory that hints at many previous adventures together, stories that Hayes has written up and that have been circulated among the public. Although this is a relatively long (but fast) read, you still feel like you’ve just been given a glimpse into this world and I’m hoping that Turton might revisit it in another book, or at the very least we get a Netflix series.


Don’t Miss…

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Episode 74, in which Laura discusses The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

Follow-on reads

If you like the sound of The Devil and the Dark Water, here are two more recommendations you might like to try.

The Anarchy by William Dalrymple

Historian and travel-writer William Dalrymple tells the story of the East India Company, from its beginnings as a small merchant company set up to try to break into the lucrative spice trade enjoyed by the Dutch, into an international trading corporation, and from there to an aggressive colonial power. Dalrymple writes fluently and effortlessly, although the atrocities committed by the company make for depressing reading (I loved it, but I did have to put this book down more than a few times for this reason). And this is a story that is not just confined to the past, every so often Dalrymple makes a clear link to recent events that connect back, giving the story a contemporary resonance. It’s fascinating and disconcerting reading, learning just how much of England’s wealth and prosperity was acquired by such morally dubious methods. NPR called it ‘A great story told in fabulous detail with interesting, if at times utterly rapacious or incompetent, characters populating it’, and it was one of Barack Obama’s best books of 2019. (K)

The North Water, Ian McGuire

A 19th-century whaling ship sets sail for the Arctic with a killer aboard. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaling ship bound for the hunting waters of the Arctic Circle. Also aboard is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money and no better option than to embark as ship’s medic on this ill-fated voyage. As the true purpose of the ship’s expedition becomes clear and despair descends upon the crew, the confrontation between Sumner and Drax will play out in the terrible darkness of the Arctic winter. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was so horrible, but which I loved so much. The writing is electric, filled with energy, the suspense that pulls you through the book is palpable, every single character is so awful you can’t quite believe what you’re reading and yet somehow you find yourself rooting for them. A unique reading experience for the stout of heart (but a thousand trigger warnings for those of a gentler disposition) this is a shockingly good novel.

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