Title:The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle/The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Author: Stuart Turton
Genre: Fantasy / Murder Mystery
Publisher: Raven Books / Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: February / September 2018
Paperback: 438 pages
At a gala party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed. Again. She’s been murdered hundreds of times, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over, Aiden’s only escape is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder and conquer the shadows of an enemy he struggles to even comprehend. But nothing and no one are quite what they seem.
Deeply atmospheric and ingeniously plotted, The 71/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a highly original debut that will appeal to fans of Dean Koontz’s Ashley Bell and Agatha Christie.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): ebook
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is a high-concept novel: an interesting Groundhog Day meets Agatha Christie meets Inception concoction with a lot of potential but which unfortunately turned out to have more lows than highs.
A man wakes up one day in a body he doesn’t recognise, memoryless – he comes to in the middle of screaming a name, “Anna”. He soon learns he is one of the guests at Blackheath, a country estate where a gala in homage to Evelyn Hardcastle is to take place that night. Our man feels at a loss and when he is a victim of a violent attack he learns that 1) he is playing a deadly game, 2) that he signed up for and 3) he has been playing it for decades and 4) the rules are simple:
Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. The man needs to find out the name of the killer and hand it over to the person in charge. Only then he will be allowed to leave Blackheath. In order to solve the mystery, he will relive the day of the murder eight times, each day starting in the body of a different witness. If at the end of the eighth witness’ “life”, he doesn’t know the killer, the day reboots and the eight day-eight witness restarts with him back to being memoryless. There are other two players competing in the game to find out the murderer. Only one person can leave. And they will stop at nothing.
The point of the body jumping is that each witness brings something– a particular take, a particular skill, a particular placement during that fateful day that could be useful. But since every loop starts with him memoryless, usually the first two experiences and bodies are more of less useless what with the fear, the disorientation, the denial. And so our man, let’s call him Aiden, has been going through this over and over and over again. Except this time? This time it’s different. He knows he will solve the crime this time.
I’ve been sitting on this review for a while now, having read the book a couple of months ago. I have very mixed feelings about it. Allow me to expound.
On the one hand, the high-concept is undeniably cool. The first few chapters are intriguing and engaging, the conceit of the novel and the mystery surrounding the character, the players and the game itself, page-turning while they remain a mystery. The solution to the murder case was actually unexpected (and a clever play on the novel’s own title).
On the other hand, I had a lot of questions once the reasons behind the game itself and the background behind Blackheath are revealed as a futurist prison where people are serving purgatory-like prison sentences for crimes committed. The main one is: why. Why exactly did this prison want to solve this murder in particular or even why they even need it to be solved this way. I mean, you have a highly developed technology capable of keeping people in limbo imprisoned and switching bodies and yet you don’t have the skills to investigate a simple murder case? OK.
Further, the prison system works as purgatory, prison sentence and second chance rodeo all thrown in together, which if you really think about it makes no sense whatsoever once you realise the “players” don’t retain full memories of their crimes. Can there be true redemption if you don’t know what you did? However this is arguably more of an ethical conundrum and discussion to be had around the novel rather than a flaw.
What I do see as a flaw and one I could not get past is the depiction of some of the characters and the inherent fat shaming that accompanies the narrative. The third body that Aiden inhabits is that of a fat banker named Ravencourt. First it is important to note that when Aidan slips into a body, he is both still conscious of who he is but he also absorbs some of the host’s personality. Ravencourt is supposed to be loathsome (ostensibly because he is a banker, according to the author’s Q&A included with the novel, although that never comes across in the narrative) as well as the cleverest character Aiden comes in contact with. However, most of the time that Aidan is inside the banker is spent on self-loathing because of the fatness of the character. The fat shaming comes from the character itself (internalised) but also from Aiden and I argue that this is supported by the narrative itself with the way other characters look at him and interact with him. Some of the most egregious examples of that are below.
“That’s when he begins to undress me. I have no doubt this is all part of the routine, but the shame’s too much to bear. Though this isn’t my body, I am humiliated by it, appalled by the waves of flesh lapping against my hips, the way my legs rub together as I walk.”
“We walk slowly, the valet tossing news at my feet, but my mind is fixed on the ponderousness of this body I am dragging forward. It’s as though some fiend has remade the house overnight, stretching he rooms and thickening the air. Wading into the sudden brightness of the entrance hall, I’m surprised to discover how steep the staircase now appears. The steps I sprinted down as Donald Davies would require climbing equipment to surmount this morning. Little wonder Lord and Lady Hardcastle lodged Ravencourt on the first floor. It would take a pulley, two strong men, and a day’s pay to hoist me into Bell’s room.”
“Opening my eyes, I find myself reflected in a full-length mirror on the wall. I resemble some grotesque caricature of the human body, my skin jaundiced and swollen, a flaccid penis peeking out of an unkept crop of pubic hair. Overcome with disgust and humiliation, I let out a sob”
“I can hear myself eating, the crush and the crack, the squelch and the gulp. Gravy runs down my chins, grease smearing my lips with a ghastly shimmering shine. Such is the ferocity of my appetite that I leave myself panting between mouthfuls. The other diners are watching this hideous performance from the corner of their eyes, trying to maintain their conversations even as the decorum of the evening crunches between my teeth. How can a man know such hunger? What hollowness must he be trying to fill?”
The depiction of the character and of Aiden’s self-loathing goes on and on for PAGES. Worst even, the next body he inhabits is that of a serial rapist. Although Aiden is horrified, he is nowhere near as bothered by it to the same extent as he was when he was inside Ravenourt. It can be argued that Aiden is merely reflecting what the rapist host himself feels (i.e. no shame) but then again, it goes back to a problematic, stereotypical, tired depiction of fatness as shameful.
Ultimately, this element of the novel overpowered the narrative to the extent I can’t recommend it.