The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle  – ★★1/2
In his debut novel, Stuart Turton takes an unusual twist on a murder-mystery. The Inception, Groundhog Day-mentality meets The Rules of the Game/Gosford Park setting. In other words, the setting is one grand manor house in the UK with the shooting season underway, and our protagonist Aiden Bishop wakes up each day in a body of one of the guests who was invited to the masquerade at the house to celebrate the arrival of Evelyn Hardcastle, the daughter of the house owners. Now, the rules are set for Aiden. He cannot escape the house and will have each day repeating itself, waking up in a body of a different guest, unless he solves the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. Each day repeats itself and Evelyn gets murdered. Will Aiden be able to solve her murder and free himself from the never-ending loop? The great things about this book are the brilliant concept, including all the psychology behind it, and enticing setting. However, those who got too excited should also hold their horses. This is because as the novel progresses, it becomes a dull, pretentious and overly confusing read.
The stellar element of Turton’s creation is undoubtedly its fascinating concept and structural design. The book captures you from the very beginning when Aiden wakes up with amnesia and cannot remember himself or where he is. He only remembers one word “Anna!”. Anna is important to him somehow, but he cannot recall why. It is really marvellous and fascinating to then discover that, after his host doctor Bell, Aiden then wakes up as Lord Ravencourt and then spoiled Jonathan Derby, etc. Turton makes the book and the body-swap concept even more interesting by ensuring that Aiden feels the feelings of the people he inhabits, as well as has their intellectual capacity. This is a really thought-provoking take on one’s usual body-swamp scenario, and does make for a very humorous read. We have such passages in the novel as “…nothing lingers in Jonathan Derby’s mind for too long and I’m soon too distracted by the preparations for tonight’s party…” [Turton, 2018: 190], and “Not for the first time, I find myself wishing for the speed of Ravencourt’s mind. Working within the confines of Jonathan Derby’s intellect is like stirring croutons into a thick soup” [Turton, 2018: 192]. Aiden has to solve the murder of Evelyn, but he finds himself either mentally or physically incapable of doing so. For example, as Lord Ravencourt, he feels the physical weight obstructs his goals, even though he has an astute mind, and, as Jonathan Derby, he feels that he does not have very good concentration, even though he has an agile body.
Another intriguing element of the story is the implicit observations on the free will vs. set destiny debate. It is clear from the narrative that Aiden cannot break through the loop of repeated days precisely because he thinks like one of his hosts. Throughout the day, he finds himself at certain places precisely because he is now one of his hosts, taking their personality with him, and everything was prearranged beforehand. It is by changing his thoughts or even nature – which is impossible on the face of it – that he can succeed and change the course of events. Aiden is losing his battle every day, but he is fresh to begin it the next one, for example, there is a passage “I’m light-headed and without anything to distract me I can feel every one of my hosts pressed up against the inside of my skull. Their memories crowd the edges of my mind, the weight of them almost too much to bear. I want everything they want. I feel their aches and am made timid by their fears. I’m no longer a man, I’m a chorus” [Turton, 2018: 401].
However, alas, the initial excitement and intrigue of the premise does not last. Half way through, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle becomes very pretentious and even boring. Aiden’s days get repeated, and the story becomes repetitive, rather than exciting. There are many pages where the plot does not go forward, but is “stuck” or “goes in circles” like its characters. Then, instead of some thought-provoking twists, we are forced to read about melodramatic, cheesy moments about the confused parentage of some characters and how one character maybe linked (by birth) to another. All this resembles some script from a cheap daytime TV series, rather than a book with a brilliant and original concept. It does not help that Turton’s use of the language is unremarkable and the book is filled with clichés. There are statements which the author thinks are witty, but actually are as old as time, such as “Nothing like a mask to reveal somebody’s true nature” [Turton, 2018: 152]. Also, the fact that Turton uses the Plague Doctor as the most mysterious character in the novel points to the author’s lack of imagination, rather than his attempt to provide an eerie character with insight into the dark nature of humanity. Moreover, Turton also seems to have read Catton’s The Luminaries  because the only French person in his novel is called Aubert, the “bad” person is referred to as “Carver” and there are references to “laudanum” in the novel – all these were the major points of Catton’s novel.
Without giving out any spoilers, it is only worthy to note that the motivations of some characters in the novel are very puzzling and the rules set to Aiden Bishop border preposterous. It becomes hard to take this story seriously, even if the reader has taken his leap of faith and accepted as given all the illogicalities of the concept. Turton goes out of his way to explain why Aiden Bishop cannot escape Blackheath House and why he cannot just kill himself. This information is merely there for the reader to find the internal logic of the plot, and all this would have been very foolish, if it was not also so very “clever”. The novel may play on absurdity to delightful results, but it does transpire into an unsatisfying and confusing plot. The reader will hardly care about any of the characters, because Turton did not provide much information on them. It is also hard to keep up with all the characters in the novel. Some of them will be memorable such as Lord Ravencourt or Dr Sebastian Bell, but it is very doubtful if the reader can say a lot about the Footman or Gregory Gold. Turton provides a list of characters in the beginning, as well as the map of Blackheath House, but all this is merely to imitate Agatha Christie – probably, rather than to help the reader to solve something – or anything.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a clever debut novel, but the excitement of the novel’s beginning and premise does not last even to the middle of the book. The brilliance of the concept gets lost in numerous melodramatic and dull soap-opera-type moments in the book’s second half. Stuart Turton is definitely an Agatha Christie wannabe (as he claims so himself) who got too carried away with his grand design and high concept in his book. There will be those who will enjoy this book, but they also have to admit that it is the brilliance of the book’s concept which is the jewel in the crown here and not the book’s progression or execution.