If the lockdown has had any positives, it has been that due to everything taking place on Zoom, it doesn’t actually matter that much what country you are in and therefore I am able to join in activities with friends across the globe. One such activity has been various Book Groups, which has helped refocus my reading, something I floundered with coming into the brutal Lockdown 3.
Sometimes I am in the mood to read a dramatic and detailed Young Adult fiction, normally with a heavy tendency towards vampires or romance and more often than not, romance with vampires. However, other times a more mature and densely packed novel such as The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (or The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle if you’re in North America) takes my fancy. I can see why it became a hit when it was first published in 2018. It is pleasingly hefty, and back in those days we were allowed to book holidays where about 50% of our time was spent laying on a beach (I know, it seems so alien now!) so this would have been very appealing.
This novel works best the less you know about it, I would even go so far as to say don’t read the blurb, don’t even read any of the quotes on the cover if you can help it. All you need to know is that it is a murder mystery set in a magnificent but dilapidated manor house that your protagonist finds himself struggling to escape.
So, if you think you want to dig in with limited outside interference in your enjoyment of it then this is your jumping off point.
Right, those of you who are still here have either already read the book or are not bothered about spoilers.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle follows our protagonist through one week at Blackheath, a manor house in the middle of the forest, as he attempts to solve the murder of Evelyn. The twist on this is that we realise quickly that our protagonist is not working under normal circumstances – he appears to be stuck in a Groundhog Day situation, but not only does he live the day of the murder over and over, he also shifts between the bodies of the witnesses each time, and each time a witness loses consciousness, he shifts to the next but can arrive back in that body at any time until that person reaches midnight. Alongside this, he is being hunted by the murderous ‘Footman’. We then find out there are other people stuck in this time loop, but they stay in the same body each day. On top of this a mysterious fellow dressed as a Plague Doctor keeps cropping up at seemingly random moments to offer tiny clues to our baffled protagonist. Still with me?
Despite all the time jumping, character hopping and sudden appearances from other characters, the book is pretty easy to follow. Turton keeps the chapters short, snappy and crucially, well labelled. Our protagonist (who about a quarter of the way into the book we find out is named Aiden) has a clear voice, even in the face of his physical appearance changing so drastically throughout the book. This keep you on track with what information you’re gleaning, and helpfully, despite time travelling, you are actually on a linear time track with Aiden throughout the entire book. However, as Aiden moves through his eight “hosts”, one thing becomes clear – each and every one of them is a man. Now, this may be a conscious decision of the author, but my 2021 mind started to wonder if there was an element of the fear of female going on. Is the idea of being present in the mind of a woman too much of a departure from reality for a cis-male character? I found myself wanting him to explore the idea of being in a woman’s body, to see things from a female perspective (after all, our victim is female) but sadly, I was left wanting.
Ultimately, Aiden solves the murder. However, in doing so we are awakened to another layer of complexity to the plot. This is a simulation. So now we move from a mystical sphere in the 1920s to a point in the not-too-distant future. Think Agatha Christie meets Black Mirror.
The simulation is not some frivolous advanced take on a murder mystery dinner party, but a brutal and mind-bending punishment for those who have committed abhorrent crimes. So immediately we ask ourselves, what crimes has Aiden committed? None, it turns out. Aiden was not sentenced to an almost eternity solving Evelyn’s murder, but rather threw himself all guns blazing into the simulation to avenge the real-world death of his sister. Still following? The woman he has befriended during this journey turns out to be the woman he was hunting, and now morality begins to blur again.
Turton manages to raise many questions about punishment, where the lines of reality and imagination blur, and how we treat others based on what information they present to us. All of this means that The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle becomes a fantastic book to discuss with your book clubs! Below are a few points we discussed:
- Is the punishment befitting on the crime?
- Is Aiden, with his brazen willingness in the ‘real world’ to avenge his sister by killing someone else, actually deserving of being in the simulation after all?
- What is The Footman doing?
- What is Turton trying to get us to question?
- What makes the characters Aiden interacts with feel real?
Overall, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle was a really enjoyable book to get stuck into. The world of Blackheath is detailed, mysterious and so convoluted it becomes hard to think of anything but the book whilst you’re reading it. A definite plus for a pandemic read, I think you’ll agree!