The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: A compelling murder mystery wrapped in an enigma

 

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton Debut author Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018), originally published earlier this year in Great Britain as The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is an intricately plotted murder mystery, set in an isolated early 20th century English mansion, with a highly imaginative speculative element that is only gradually revealed, as our main character tries to figure out who he really is, and how to solve the mystery of Evelyn Hardcastle’s pending death … or has her death already occurred?

The plot and setting are worthy of Agatha Christie: Lord and Lady Hardcastle have invited a number of guests to their British country mansion, Blackheath House, for a weekend party to celebrate the return of their daughter, Evelyn, from Paris. (The notable guests and household staff are conveniently listed in a copy of the party invitation at the beginning of the book.) One of the guests, Dr. Sebastian Bell, suddenly comes to himself while running through the forest surrounding Blackheath. The name “Anna” was on his lips, but he has no idea who Anna is or who he himself is. His memory is completely blank. Bell is horrified to see a man chasing a woman through the forest, and then a scream and a pistol shot.

Eventually Bell, with a little mysterious help, makes his way back to the mansion, where he tries to convince the other guests to search for the woman he is certain was murdered in the forest. But nobody at Blackheath knows (or in any case admits to knowing) a woman named Anna, and they’re dubious about Bell’s improbably story, particularly in light of his amnesia. Bell meets several of the other guests, including Evelyn Hardcastle, a blonde woman in her late twenties who quickly strikes up a friendship with him (“I loathe getting to know people, so whenever I meet somebody I like, I just assume a friendship immediately. It saves a great deal of time in the long run.”) In the late evening Bell sees something that frightens him so much he faints. He wakes up in another person’s body ― the butler, Mr. Collins ― in the morning of the same day that he just lived through as Sebastian Bell. His day as Collins is even more hellish than it was the first time around. And then he wakes up again, early in the morning of that same day, in another person’s body. Is there a way out of this nightmare?

I went into The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle without knowing anything about its plot; I had conveniently forgotten the blurb by the time I began reading the book. Normally I hate not having context in a novel, and being confused about what the book I’m reading is generally about. But in this case going in blind was highly appropriate, because our main character (who does find out his real name eventually) initially has no idea who he actually is or what is going on around him. The light sheds very gradually, but it all comes together in the end with an awesome set of twists and turns that Dame Christie herself certainly would have admired. Characters often aren’t who they seem, and events that seemed to signify one thing frequently turn out to have an entirely different meaning.

The plot of The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is so layered, with a tremendously tight timeline and so many interwoven elements and characters, that I can’t help but picture Turton writing this novel in a room filled with vast numbers of Post-it notes and crisscrossing strings tying everything together. (Turton has, in fact, stated that he used a massive spreadsheet, a notepad for each character, and a map of the setting ― as well as the aforementioned Post-it notes ― in the process of writing this book.) The speculative element is fascinating, if slightly far-fetched, but undeniably creative. When the main character realizes that the personalities of his host bodies are leaking through, affecting his thoughts and reactions, it deepens the plot.

On top of this, Turton adds insightful writing that’s a pleasure to read. I highlighted some sixty passages in the book; some of them were to help me keep track of the plot and characters, but others were simply for the beauty of Turton’s writing.

She’s trying to anchor me with words … but I’m impervious to reason, consumed by my hatred for the man I was. His flaws I could accept, perhaps even overcome, but this is a betrayal. He made his mistakes and fled, leaving me holding the tatters of his scorched life.

Turton also adds symbolism to The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, including the decaying mansion, Blackheath, which echoes the failings and degeneracies of the upper class characters who are the guests at this dubious house party. A chess piece appears and reappears. A person in the costume of a plague doctor shares information with our main character about his situation and his mission.

This compelling murder mystery, wrapped in a soft science fiction enigma, is a truly impressive debut novel. Its combination of classic British mystery, Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap blew my mind! I enthusiastically recommend it, and I seriously can’t wait to see what Stuart Turton comes up with next.

Published September 18, 2018. One of Stylist Magazine’s 20 Must-Read Books of 2018. One of Harper’s Bazaar’s 10 Must-Read Books of 2018. One of Marie Claire, Australia’s 10 Books You Absolutely Have to Read in 2018. The Rules of Blackheath. Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. There are eight days, and eight witnesses for you to inhabit. We will only let you escape once you tell us the name of the killer. Understood? Then let’s begin… *** Evelyn Hardcastle will die. Every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others… The most inventive debut of the year twists together a mystery of such unexpected creativity it will leave readers guessing until the very last page.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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7 comments

  1. Well, I know what I’m asking Santa for this year! :D This sounds amazing!

  2. This sounds wonderful.

  3. Cool! I’ve accomplished my purpose.

  4. Kay Rudolph /

    I did something with this book I’ve never done before. The moment I finished it I flipped back to the beginning and read it again. That’s because it was so riveting as I first read it that I had to fly through it to find out what happened — and it was so great I wanted to read it again to find out what the heck happened! Both readings earned top stars.

    • This book is definitely on my “reread sometime soonish” list! Unfortunately my TBR pile is out of control right now, so this one has to wait a while.

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