The Seven (½) Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Book cover: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle - Stuart Turton (text treatment, art deco)An elite group of the rich and unpleasant have been invited to remote Blackheath House for a party. But their hostess has an ulterior motive – and so do some of the guests. Some will die. Some will lie. And one will re-live the day until he figures out what’s going on…

It seems entirely appropriate that a book with an amnesiac narrator, complex chronology and more plot twists than you can shake a stick doesn’t even have the same name on both sides of the Atlantic. Here in the UK, the title has Evelyn Hardcastle dying seven times; in the US, it’s seven and a half. I haven’t had time to read both editions to see if there are other differences – if it turns out to be another Cloud Atlas, I’ll wait for some academic to tell me about it in ten years.

Quibbling over how many deaths Evelyn Hardcastle has coming to her aside, this is a high concept debut from Stuart Turton with a snappy elevator pitch: Gosford Park meets Source Code. It made me nervous from the start as these are two favourites of mine, but I needn’t have worried: Seven Deaths lives up to its billing with an intricate plot and unpleasant period setting.

Like Gosford Park, a party of people whose worst-kept secret is how much they hate one another have convened in an English country manor for the weekend. It’s twenty years since a similar party, when the eldest Hardcastle son died in mysterious circumstances. Today, their daughter’s life will be on the line – but nothing is what it appears, least of all her death.

Like Source Code, Aiden lives (and relives) the day through other men’s experiences. Inhabiting different members of the company in turn, he sees the crime from different perspectives – and with different skills to turn to solving the crime. The only way to escape the loop is to solve Evelyn’s murder – before one of his rivals beats him to it, or kills all his hosts…

I enjoyed Seven Deaths as a period thriller; and I liked the SFnal conceit of a man jumping from one body to the next to try and work out who a killer is. It’s well-written, cleverly-plotted and fast-paced – the perfect potboiler, in many respects. I whizzed through it in a day, but it left me with mixed feelings and the nagging suspicion that if I hadn’t been on a long flight, I might have put it down and never come back to it.

In part, this was because I was intrigued by the plot rather than engaged by the characters. Most of the cast are extravagantly unlikeable (even the unnamed background attendees are seen in lurid flashes of Dante-esque excess), but I think I was meant to warm up to Aiden himself. And I didn’t.

As an amnesiac with little sense of self, Aiden is a bit of a cipher: his heart seems to be in the right place, but some of his reactions are informed by his current host. Then there was an unpleasant vein of ableism that ran through the work from start to finish (describing the badly scarred butler as looking ‘barely human’; the extensive fat-shaming of Lord Ravencourt; the equation of murder and mental illness in the final act). These attitudes were never called out or rebutted, which left a bad taste in my mouth.

I was also dismayed by the way the narrative handled Anna, presented in turn as a victim, a femme fatale, and a potentially unreliable ally. She intrigued me – I’m a sucker for will-they-won’t-they-betray-you subplots – but the story slowly strips away her agency.  SPOILER (mouse over to read) So many of her actions turn out to have been executed under Aiden’s orders; in the end, she’s left with few independent deeds beyond her choice to trust him.

My final issue lies deep in spoiler territory, so I’ll be ambiguous. Seven Deaths explores questions of guilt and redemption, and I found – to my surprise – that I wasn’t comfortable with (some of) its conclusions. This is very reader-specific, but it left me out of sorts in spite of myself.

For all I’ve focused on my dislikes, Seven Deaths remains a diverting read that I would recommend to anyone getting on a long flight. I admire it for its masterful manipulation of its plots and for surprising me when it mattered. It’s a brilliant puzzle piece – just one that left me cold.