Eric Boss reviews THE 7½ DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE
Stuart Turton’s labyrinthine mystery has been awarded the 2019 Strand Critics Award for a debut novel, a well-deserved honor and no surprise to anyone who has already read it. It is just about the most complex whodunit around, rivalling in intricacy Dorothy Sayers’ rail-schedule-tide-table-multiple-suspect conundrums. It’s a puzzler of epic proportions and a delight to lovers of crime fiction who don’t want to be led by the hand.
We’re not sure just who the narrator is for some time, but we soon learn that he is trapped inside the bodies of numerous weekend guests at a country manor, changing hosts each time he awakes from sleep. While inhabiting these alien frames he must compete with the natural proclivities, instincts and intellects of whatever personage holds him. A glutton, a drug seller, a rake, a policeman and others furnish the shells within which he must operate, his goal to discover a murderer. Like Groundhog Day or Life After Life he must endure the same set of incidents from different viewpoints and with varying motivations. An enigmatic character he calls The Plague Doctor (from the medieval plague doctor mask he wears) gives him instructions and limitations he must observe, the object being release from the repetitious and frustrating replaying of the days preceding the crime. If he can present the culprit to the Plague Doctor he will be discharged to resume his normal life.
Complex beyond description, the plot is a marvel of jigsaw construction. Clues appear in an order that defies analysis, personalities intrude into the investigation thwarting the solution and self-doubt and confusion riddle the narrator. It’s a brain teaser of the highest order. It may be best to simply settle back into a comfortable chair and ride out the storm to the end. The final twist puts a cherry on top of this dark confection. A must-read for fans of mysteries and thrillers.
Shelf talker: A satisfyingly complex mystery with enough plot twists, dead ends and unexpected occurrences to delight any lover of dark crime fiction. This whodunit will challenge the most meticulous readers of detective stories and is almost guaranteed to effectively conceal the true culprit until the very end.