After having thoroughly enjoyed The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I looked forward to starting Stuart Turton’s latest mystery foray, The Devil and the Dark Water. Except, his latest novel is nothing like his previous work. Gone are the science fiction/supernatural elements that made that work so compelling. Instead, we have something akin to Sherlock Holmes on the sea, and I cannot say I am a fan.
The Devil and the Dark Water has a slow start. A very slow start. In fact, you wonder what the point of the story is well past the twenty-five percent mark. It does not make a must-read situation.
Then, once the mystery becomes apparent, it does not take long to predict the mystery’s answer. In fact, you don’t even have to think about the ending because you know you are right because it is such a popular red herring/mystery solution. You hope that Mr. Turton would not be that obvious, but you are wrong. To say that this does not engender disappointment would be a lie. What good is a mystery when at least part of the answer is so obvious that you know it without having to think?
Speaking of the ending, it is highly unsatisfactory, although I suspect that is most definitely not Mr. Turton’s intention. I believe he means the ending to be better than a typical revenge story. Except, I don’t see it that way. Instead, I see it as a bit of a way for the main characters to have their cake and eat it too. Mr. Turton found an ending that allows the main characters to all have happy endings in spite of issues like historical legality and accuracy. While others may enjoy it, I found it rang a bit false if only because he spends so much time immersing the reader in the minutiae of colonial Dutch life, with an attention to detail that can be mind-numbing at times, and his ending flouts that.
The characters in The Devil and the Dark Water also are wanting. While perfectly adequate and capable of progressing the story, they are essentially archetypes. Archetypes serve a purpose, but in this story, it feels out of place to use them. Again, Mr. Turton does not shy away from detailing all aspects of life aboard the merchant ship, so using one-dimensional characters with no growth or further development feels wrong.
Lastly, something occurs to the ship that Mr. Turton never addresses and which should not bother me but does. Without giving too much away, the bad guys need to have the ship near a certain island in order for their plan to work. Except, the ship flees a massive hurricane for two weeks, only to have to brave its waves and wind when it moves faster than they can. Mr. Turton specifically mentions that the ship travels in any direction necessary to remain ahead of the storm. Later, once in the midst of a hurricane, they don’t even bother with direction and just fight to keep their ship afloat. And yet, somehow the ship ends up exactly where it needs to be. I don’t know how that is possible, and Mr. Turton does not give a satisfactory explanation. When every other part of the story has a rather mundane answer, this is one mystery that he never solves and which irks me for its unbelievability.
So, The Devil and the Dark Water is definitely a disappointment, and not only because I was holding it up against his fabulous previous novel. The two are so different that you probably shouldn’t compare them, except for the fact that Hardcastle was pretty damn good and The Devil and the Dark Water is not. The mystery is lackluster and predictable while the characters are archetypal and boring. His storytelling this time around is missing that WTFery as well as the shocking plot twists which made his previous story so good. I’d say skip it, but the buzz on this is much louder than my voice ever will be. So, I will say I hope you enjoy it more than I did!