The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (Raven Books, 8th February 2018) quickly became one of last Winter’s most anticipated books. I saw my Twitter feed flooded with people praising the book and once I learned that it was a modern take on a Golden Age mystery, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. Thank you to Raven Books (Bloomsbury) for always supporting Bodies at the Library.
The first thing that called my attention about The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle was that it was described as a modern take on a Golden Age mystery with a twist. I think it’s pretty obvious now that I am not Golden Age’s biggest fan, and though I have read my Christie and my Sayers, I always veer towards contemporary fiction. However, I am always game for a revisiting as it is more likely to incorporate a modern perspective. And yes, The Seven Deaths is indeed an ambitious revision of Golden Age mysteries and a very clever one I may add.
This is a spoiler-free review, so I am not giving anything away. The title already suggests a repetition of some kind and the blurb available online at sites like Goodreads gives away the main twist of the book of which I was completely unaware of when I started reading: The novel follows a male narrator who is doomed to repeat the same day in which Evelyn Hardcastle gets murdered. At one point he is told he needs to stop the killing, but as the days go on and he is obviously influenced by the knowledge he is gaining. Think of The Seven Deaths as a Groundhound Day meets a procedural Golden Age mystery. Because if something is clear throughout the novel is that Sturton knows his crime fiction and he knows it pretty well. The book is full of references to the history of crime fiction in terms of structure, themes and development. In fact, I read chunks of the novel in one sitting because it felt more like an experiment on narrative structures and crime fiction as a genre than simply a novel: “What if we twist procedural mysteries up to the point the main character is completely aware of the repetition?”. I highly recommend you keep a pen and a pad nearby because things will get, well, repetitive.
I love a chunky book, though it needs to have a very specific rhythm so I can keep on reading beyond page 350 (which is probably the average for your contemporary crime novel), and at more than 500 pages I found the story a bit slow, especially towards the middle. I must admit that the main male cast did not help as I really longed for more time devoted to Evelyn Hardcastle and the other women in the story. My longing was slightly satisfied in the end though, and I indeed rushed through the last fifty pages so enthralled that I did not realise I had kept on reading until the early hours of Monday.
Was The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle everything I expected? Yes, and there was still room to be surprised. The book was a fantastic reading experiment and I think that my personal circumstances at the time – I decided to “curl up in bed and read this chunky book” as I got sent home from the hospital for a week of bedrest – contributed to my perception of the book as slower than it probably really is. Also, as everyone kept pointing out, this is the first novel by a male author that I read in a very long time and I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome. So, do give The Seven Deaths a try if you are a crime fiction fan, and especially if you are a procedural junkie. Turton spent three years writing this novel and it is easy to see where all that effort went to: A masterfully crafted postmodern take on Golden Age mysteries.