Time loops. An English country house murder mystery. Shifting identities and allegiances. Yes please. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has so many things that attract me to a novel. For the most part, Stuart Turton’s execution kept me riveted: I inhaled this book over the course of two days, stopping only because I really did need to sleep.
A man comes to consciousness in the middle of a forest. All he remembers is the name Anna. He feels he is being pursued by a killer. Convinced this Anna is the killer’s victim, he stumbles back into the country house where he is apparently a guest. Told his name is Sebastian Bell, he awkwardly makes it through the day only to wake up in the body of another person the next day … and so goes the life of Aiden Bishop, as he eventually learns is his real name. Aiden must solve the murder of the eponymous Evelyn, inhabiting the bodies of eight people in Blackheath over eight consecutive days. But he is not the only one trapped within this strange time loop: there is a footman hunting him, and the mysterious Anna, who might be friend or foe. Pulling the strings like the director of a macabre play is none other than an elusive man dressed as a medieval plague doctor. Aiden chafes at these rules, and moreover, he decides he doesn’t just want to solve Evelyn’s murder: he wants to prevent it.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: as far as a mystery goes in the Agathe Christie style, this is neither clever nor original. It’s extremely straightforward and pretty obvious, for the most part (there are a couple of over-the-top cases of mistaken identity or paternity that feels a little bit more Shakespearean than anything). To be fair to Turton, this is for the best: if the mystery itself were too clever, that would overshadow and diminish the science-fiction conceits of the book.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle feels rather like an episode of The Outer Limits. Turton carefully limits the amount of exposition around Aiden’s situation. This allows us to deduce things along with Aiden as far as the rules of the game go. By having Aiden awake in a new host’s body each day, Turton ups the ante from your regular, Groundhog Day-style time loop. The same goes for Aiden’s frenemies who have similar knowledge of the time loop. I particularly like how, as the week elapses, the barrier between Aiden’s personality and that of his host’s diminishes to the point where he struggles to resist or control his host’s impulses….
In this way, this is a very character-driven novel. Sometimes these types of mysteries result in a lot of stock characters, you know? By having Aiden inhabit at least eight of these people, though, Turton forces himself to really develop a careful backstory for so many of these characters. Hence, while we never actually meet Sebastian Bell or any of Aiden’s other hosts, we learn a lot about their lives—and how they are connected to the tragedies at Blackheath—than we would if Aiden were just present as himself, or as a single character. Turton remains true to the trope common to this subgenre (most subgenres?) of mystery: everyone has something to hide. Everyone has skeletons in their closet.
When we learn more details about how long Aiden has been inhabiting this loop, we also learn more about Aiden himself—as well as who he might be becoming. Turton presents for us a character study of one man, albeit through a very unusual lens. Each host reveals different facets of Aiden’s personality, and if the Plague Doctor is to be believed, Aiden himself has been changed by this experience.
As far as the ending goes, well….
I liked the ending overall. I had my dad read this before I got to it, and he didn’t like the ending too much—he thought it was contrived, a happily-ever-after thing stuck on awkwardly. I see where he’s coming from. Nevertheless, I like the postmodern ambiguity. I like that Turton doesn’t spend any time trying to show us the world outside the time loop, or resolve what happens after the time loop is over. Any of that would draw attention away from the mystery of Blackheath, which is the story.
My one qualm would be that I’m not sure I agree with Aiden about Anna. Not so much whether or not she has changed—more so, I disagree that Aiden has the authority or knowledge to make that kind of determination. Perhaps the most jarring, fascinating moment of this entire book happens somewhere in the last act. Aiden observes that, by waking first in the body of Sebastian Bell and having a very positive interaction with Evelyn, he becomes predisposed to liking her. Some of his subsequent hosts are very poorly treated by her, either through cold indifference or outright hostility. He remarks that, had any of those encounters been his first impressions of Evelyn, perhaps he would not feel so much sympathy towards her or want to save her so much. It’s kind of an “oh damn” moment where we get reminded of how important the order of events is to our lives.
That’s probably why I like this book so much: Turton’s mastery of the time loop structure, the subtle ways in which he allows Aiden to manipulate it, is great. I’m not really concerned with whether or not this book is as original as some people say. Nor am I overly concerned about whether or not it holds up as a mystery or as a science fiction thought experiment or even whether the ending is good. Time travel books are really hard, and to be honest, a lot of them have plot holes and dangly bits. I love Doctor Who, after all—I’m not going to be too hard on this one.
Read this with a full cup of tea and an open mind ready to be blown, and you probably won’t be disappointed.