Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Review: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

On the 19th anniversary of the murder of 7 year old Thomas Hardcastle, the Hardcastle family has invited a huge house party to join them at their country home (the scene of the crime) to celebrate the return from abroad of their daughter Evelyn. If this strikes you as a curious situation, just wait until you hear the rest of the premise of Stuart Turton's complex murder mystery. There's not only murder, but there's a time loop, and inhabiting different bodies or "hosts" each time the main character wakes as he races the clock to solve the murder that happens over and over again each night at 11 pm. It's an original and intriguing premise that ends up being hampered somewhat by its very complexity and need for exposition.

A man wakes up in a panic in a forest with his arm slashed and no memory of who he is. All he knows is that he is certain he's heard a woman shot and he thinks that her name might be Anna. As he stumbles out of the dense and threatening woods and into the large, frayed at the seams country house, he is launching himself into a living nightmare. The house is Blackheath House and it is the country home of the Hardcastles who have gathered the people who were with them at another party so many years ago when their young son was murdered. The party is ostensibly to celebrate daughter Evelyn's return from Paris but instead appears to be more of a punishment since she, 10 years old at the time, was supposed to be in charge of little Thomas when he was killed. Worse than the circumstances surrounding the party is the information that the main character receives the horrifying news that at 11 pm that night Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered. He has 8 days, which he will spend in 8 hosts, to solve the murder. Each of the 8 days will be a repeat of the one before it and only if he solves the murder will he be allowed to leave Blackheath. Actually, only one person, the person who solves the murder, will be allowed to leave and there are others competing with him to solve the crime, others who might even be out to kill him to win. It will take everything in him, and many of the good and bad traits of his "hosts," who include a morally weak doctor, an elderly lawyer, a socialite, a well-heeled rapist, an obese banker, a sharp police officer, the butler, and a painter, to even begin to make sense of the situation and the elaborate rules governing it.

There is an air of threatening menace woven through the whole sprawling plot. The gothic atmosphere, the crumbling mansion, and the abandoned features around the house all contribute to the feelings of desperation and panicked frustration that our main character lives with for eight long days. He is confused, as is the reader, by the days lived out of order and trapped in hosts who help and hinder his investigations in unequal measure. The story is carefully woven and intricate but it also lagged in the middle and the characters whom the main character inhabits were not all equally well fleshed out so as to differentiate them from each other. The clues to solve the mystery were quite sparse until the end. And what a mixed up, chaotic ending it was with the main character's own past being revealed in addition to the twists and turns of the main mystery. The main character himself has very little personality beyond those of the hosts he inhabits although he occasionally makes reference to having to hold back the host's natural feelings. But keeping his hosts from acting in certain ways does not, in fact, endow him with a fully realized personality. This is both part of the horror of the book, that his very self is being subsumed by his hosts, and a weakness as it makes it hard for the reader to connect with him or to understand when he is acting on his own initiative. It must have been tricky indeed to write a novel this circular, always looping back on itself, but it proved to be tricky to read it, to unpick all of the tangles, as well.

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