The Satan and the Darkish Water by Stuart Turton overview – irresistible maritime thriller | Fiction
T.Evelyn Hardcastle’s Seven Deaths – a curiously invigorating mix of genres dubbed by publishers as “Gosford Park meets Inception via Agatha Christie” – won the 2018 Costa Award for Best First Novel. Stuart Turton’s second novel is another pick’n’mix affair involving a demon, an impossible murder, and a famous “alchemical detective” named Samuel Pipps. It’s a maritime conundrum with fantastic overtones, set on an East Indian during the punishing eight month sea voyage from Batavia to Amsterdam.
It’s 1634: The Dutch East India Company, run by a shady cabal of capitalists known as “Gentlemen 17”, has recalled Batavia’s governor-general to reward his colonial success by choosing him as one of them . Together with the governor on the galleon, Saardam travels with his wife, daughter and lover. Conditions are tight and bad. The sailors are brutal and the noble passengers are untrustworthy. Something is crooked in the damp darkness below deck, and it is soon clear that they are not only swimming on the sea, but also on the murky waters of greed and capital. What is the secret of “The Folly”, the inexplicable quasi-scientific object that the governor brought on board? Why was Samuel Pipps, recognized as the most respected investigator of his day, dragged on board in chains? How can he solve a murder in a locked room that seems so impossible that it appears supernatural when locked in a cell the size of a coffin? Is the demon “Old Tom” real or just a Scooby Doo-style player in one of the many commercial and political factions on board? From the governor to Pipps’ assistant Arent Hayes to the demon himself, all seem related and involved in the backstory. Everyone has a motive.
Murder, conspiracy and Gothic mayhem aside, these are just a few of the puzzles our crime-fighting duo is set to solve as the Saardam wriggles its way into Holland. Pipps and Hayes are as opposites as you could possibly want them to be. Where the sleuth is nicknamed “the sparrow”, his bodyguard is huge and ugly, with a shaved scalp, “nose flattened” and scars from his last flogging. Where Pipps is fragile, handsome and extremely rational, Hayes turns out to be a man of surprising empathy and gentleness, despite his size, durability and dull manners. Despite Pipps’ intelligence and Hayes’ experience in the mud and blood of the Eighty Years’ War, none of them seem entirely competent to begin with. And the constant revelation that is part of Turton’s engineering seems to be neither, of course.
Turton retells their relationship in small synoptic chunks that suggest it has already evolved across a slew of novels, as if assuming that the devoted fan is familiar with previous adventures, even if he’s the first-time reader brusquely brings it up to date. The order of this relationship, he implies, is reversed! Only for this adventure does the assistant reluctantly have to become a detective! Can he use his mentor’s methods or does he have to find his own way? It’s a classic maneuver used to rekindle interest in many long-running crime series – one of several clever imitations and references that would be a shame here. The nod from the writer to the reader affirms a great pleasure in contemporary entertainment: sharing the trops.
The devil and the dark water is all about narrative pleasure. Often times, in service of its quick, confident twists and turns, characters speak as if they know they are in a book, and either nudge a forgetful reader or wink at an accomplice. They’ll add extensive backstories to use for a reveal or for their next assignments and excitements. Our idea of the character as we already know it will conflict with its new behavior for one or two sides, and then succumb as our sympathies adjust. This helps the writer to convey the emotional charge of each scene quickly and dirty. Before one crazy encounter ends (for example, a burning leper molesting a crowd on the docks), the next one (the angry meeting of the detective’s assistant and the beautiful governor’s wife) has already begun.
Events are approaching at a dizzying speed and almost instantly receding into the distance, falling into the fog of battle and shipwreck. The locked room murder meets a Michael Bay film on Treasure Island. You can’t know what’s going on, if only because the author won’t let you know until he delivers the final surprise – and another one after that. The effect is irresistible. Turton got his world up and running on the first two pages; After that, deceptions and distractions multiply until the final, unheard of revelation. At this point, it turns out that the dark water is rather darker than you imagined.
• The Devil and the Dark Waters is published by Raven (£ 16.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.