BookBrowse Reviews The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

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The Devil and the Dark Water

by Stuart Turton

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton X
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2020, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2021, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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Aboard a ship to Amsterdam in 1634, a bodyguard attempts to prove his employer is innocent of a crime, but a series of "unholy miracles" complicates his mission.

In 1634 on the day that world famous detective Samuel Pipps is set to board the Sardaam from Batavia to Amsterdam in handcuffs, the ship is approached by a leper who climbs atop a crate to declare a frightening prophecy: "The Sardaam's cargo is sin, and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam." The man then bursts into flames and dies moments later, at which time it's discovered that, despite the prophecy he just announced, he has no tongue.

While the opening of this standalone mystery is explosive, The Devil and the Dark Water is a slow burner. It mostly follows Arent, Samuel Pipps' bodyguard, a gruff yet honorable man intent on proving the innocence of his accused employer. It also follows Sara Wessel, a noblewoman trapped in an abusive marriage hoping to make a new life for herself in Amsterdam. The two form an unlikely friendship as the ship comes under siege by dark forces in the form of a demon called Old Tom that has a terrifying link to Arent's past.

In his sophomore novel after the wildly successful debut The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton expertly marries the classic detective novel with the supernatural. Whether Old Tom is an actual devil or the work of any of the humans on board is unclear for the majority of the story, but a paranormal presence can be acutely felt throughout, as a series of three "unholy miracles" occurs, starting with the slaughter of all the animals in a pen that was inaccessible to the passengers.

Though the novel is not outright scary, there's something distinctly chilling about the atmosphere that Turton has created. Effectively evoking the spirit of classic locked-room mysteries like Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, he offers an intriguing cast of characters whose ambiguous pasts and motives are all sufficiently compelling to infuse the novel with a sense of paranoia and mistrust.

The author also subverts the classic detective formula with the fact that the detective in question — Samuel Pipps — is in chains throughout the voyage. The work of solving the mystery then falls to Arent, Pipps' second-in-command who has always been the brawn to Pipps' brain. Arent protests frequently that he isn't the right man for this job, but with his employer locked away for a crime that he may or may not have committed, he's the only one who can be trusted to help.

It isn't apparent just how much of an accomplishment The Devil and the Dark Water is until you reach its brilliant conclusion. There are elements that may give the reader pause throughout — notably the slow pace and a number of coincidences that starts to border on the absurd — but this is a book that rewards both patience and attention to detail. Trust that Turton knows what he's doing, that he is leading you somewhere both shocking and rewarding. In the meantime, there's plenty to enjoy — lively prose, intriguing characters, a compelling mystery and a beautifully rendered setting on the high seas.

Reviewed by Rachel Hullett

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2020, and has been updated for the July 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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