While it’s always a disservice to play the “it’s like BLANK meets BLANK with a touch of BLANK” game with good stories, if I had to, I’d say The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is like Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day with a touch of Inception.
And while that is accurate, as far as it goes, it doesn’t actually go very far. This is one of those books you can enjoy as pure entertainment, or choose to look at deeper and find plenty to enjoy there as well. In a way, the entire book is one giant question mark about the nature of personal identity.
But it’s also just fun. The kind of fun where you’re hoping they turn this book into a movie or miniseries as soon as possible (the TV rights have been optioned).
Known as The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle in the US, the story begins, as many weird stories tend to, with our protagonist missing their memory. He’s in a forest, calling out a woman’s name, and believes he then sees that same woman being murdered. The murderer then hands him a compass and points him in the right direction to get to some kind of safety, a decrepit mansion, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
He soon learns that one of the guests at this mansion, Evelyn Hardcastle, is going to be murdered—has been murdered many times before, in fact—and he needs to solve her murder before the day is out. However, every time he falls asleep, he starts the day again in a new body on the same day.
The fun of stories like these is not giving away too much in a blurb or review, because you desperately want to puzzle things out for yourself. Heck, if there was a way to get you to read the book while telling you absolutely nothing about the story, it would be even better. Fortunately, there is a lot going on beyond what I just described, so there is still plenty to figure out.
On the murder mystery side of things, it follows the expected character paths—in that nobody is exactly as they seem (a point made doubly true by the fact the protagonist becomes a large number of them at one point or another). A story like this is about layers of revelation. You are given the surface explanation of who everyone is and why they’re there, but as time goes on you realize there is a vast interconnected web beneath it all, one that everyone is trapped by in one form or another.
But any strange fantasy premise lives or dies based on its rules and the story’s adherence to it. Take Groundhog Day, for example. While there is never an explanation as to WHY Bill Murray’s character Phil was stuck in the time loop, we quickly understand the rules behind it, and those rules remain consistent throughout the film. Much of the enjoyment of the film is watching Phil puzzle out the rules and push the boundaries in creative ways.
The same can be said for Seven (or 7½) Deaths. We start in a bizarre situation with no information, and eventually start to feel out the rules along with the protagonist, and later try to puzzle out how things change when new information is learned. And while we never truly have a full grasp as to the whys and hows about his situation, we learn more than enough to satisfy us. In fact, trying to explain more would be counterproductive.
At the very end I was still left with some questions, but obviously I can’t share what they were. This is one of those stories that, once you’ve finished, you want to know more about, well, everything. But after a while you’ll realize those questions you might have aren’t important. The important part of the book, the reason this story even exists, is brought to a completely satisfactory (if slightly open-ended) conclusion.
This is another debut novel that has received critical acclaim. Stuart Turton is normally a freelance travel journalist. Given the random list of accomplishments found in his biography, it’s unclear whether this is the start of a long career or another random step in his lifelong adventure. He does have a new book marked for publication in 2020, so it will be interesting to see how he gets over that “follow up novel” hurdle most authors with an early success have to deal with.
For previous book reviews as well as bonus links, please visit: https://www.noahchinnbooks.com/articles/off-the-shelf/