One of the most ingenious and satisfying novels I’ve read in years, this plays with the tropes of the Golden Age Detection novel (murder during a weekend country house party in roughly the Gosford Park era) to produce something that’s arguably a meditation on the human condition . . . and at the same time magnificent, puzzly, twisty fun. Unfortunately it’s being marketed, at least in the US, as a mystery novel, complete with a stack of cover quotes from renowned crime writers (include a quite frankly bonkers claim from Sarah Pinborough that it’s a locked-room mystery).
I’m on an editorial deadline at the moment so I’m not sure I can do this complex novel justice, but here goes . . .
Nineteen years ago at Blackheath, the country pile of Lord and Lady Hardcastle, one of their children, Thomas, was murdered. Now Lady Blackheath has insisted on throwing a party to mark the anniversary and also, as we eventually learn, to announce the betrothal of her daughter, Evelyn. The guests are primarily people who were guests on that weekend when Thomas died; the same is true of many of the household staff.
That’s the surface setup. What’s really going on, however, is that our primary (and narrating) character, whose name we learn about a hundred pages in (or by glancing at the front-flap blurb) is Aiden Bishop, is one of three characters who have been grafted into the situation from the outside. Unlike the other two, Aiden has been given the power — or the curse — of drifting from body (“host”) to body. He plays a total of eight different roles in the ongoing tragedy delineated through eight different versions of the day leading up to the death by enforced suicide (i.e., murder) of Evelyn Hardcastle.
Yet this isn’t a Groundhog Day or Replay situation. Aiden doesn’t experience the day eight times over, one after the other, in the eight different bodies. Instead he’s flipped between one and another and often back again in accordance with principles that are too complicated to spell out here yet make perfect sense as you read the novel. It’s as if you’re being given a jigsaw that consists of pieces drawn first from A’s version of the relevant day, then from B’s, then from C’s, then a bit more from B’s, hop from here to D, back to B for a moment . . . Aiden finds himself trying to integrate, eventually, eight versions of a single day that vary in details he has no real hope of predicting.
He also has to cope with the interventions of (a) the other two entities, Daniel and Anna, who are likewise trapped here, attempting to solve the mystery so they can be allowed to escape, (b) the Plague Doctor, a figure who appears from time to time and who we deduce fairly quickly is a representative of the powers-that-be who’ve set this whole crazy affair up, and (c) the footman, a near-characterless psycho who sees it as his mission to sadistically murder Aiden’s “hosts” one by one in such a way that Aiden will never be able, however often or in however many guises he lives through the day, to piece together the puzzle of who engineered the killing of Evelyn Hardcastle . . . and who murdered Thomas Hardcastle, all those years ago.
Whew! That’s the simplest explanation I can give of the setup.
Why do I admire this novel so much? First, and most pragmatically, there’s my respect for Turton’s skill in executing the whole logistics of the thing. I used the term “jigsaw” above, and that’s what the author’s task must have felt like as he wrote this book: Aiden is solving a jigsaw where he’s being forced to lay down the pieces in the wrong order, and sometimes finds that a piece he’s already put down has been moved, yet somehow Turton had to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be. This is a long book and I’m not the brightest of buttons, but I found exactly one — yes, uno — place where I thought Turton had made a (small) error in the whole goddam structure: Evelyn had done something in one timeline that in “reality” Anna had done. I then realized it was essentially a proofreading/copyediting error.*
All of the people whom Aiden temporarily inhabits are ghastly, yet they have redeeming factors, and these can come to the fore as Aiden occupies the “hosts” and to a certain, gradually diminishing extent controls them. As he discovers those redeeming factors, so do we. The grossly overweight banker Ravencourt (think of the pigout guy in the restaurant in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life) has an analytical understanding that Aiden can only envy; the less-than-wholly-scrupulous lawyer Dance, who loathes and psychologically persecutes his son for “weakness,” is yet another whose mental acuity Aiden admires even as he learns to share it. Under Aiden’s influence, these two and some of the other “hosts” become at least briefly better human beings.
Here we see one of the tacks the book takes toward a major subtext: Even though Aiden is not an ideal human being himself, his influence goes a long way toward turning despicable characters into moderately acceptable human beings: it’s as if you could change the course of an ocean liner by shoving against its hull with your finger. “As if you could”? As Archimedes was among the first to point out, that’s exactly what you can do.
The subtext concerned is, of course, to do with redemption. There is almost no one, the novel suggests, even the eventual villain of the piece, who’s irredeemable. There’s another bit of subtext (that I can’t outline here for fear of spoilers) that takes this further, equating redemption with the purpose of any sane judicial system: not punishment but rehabilitation.
As I said somewhere at the top, though, the novel’s concerns and subtexts go beyond this. The weekend party at Blackheath, with its gathering of often but not always vile individuals, can be seen as a microcosmic representation of the human world in which we live. As Aiden discovers while cycling through his “hosts” and witnessing/participating in different versions of the crucial day, the present and more importantly the future aren’t simply circumstances that just happen: we mold them through an amalgamation of all our individual decisions. If the conceit of quantum theory is correct that we’re constantly generating a myriad of new futures, in one of which we have to live, then the book seems to be saying that the particular future we inhabit after any one “now” isn’t a matter of chance: instead it’s a matter of decisions we make between options like greed and friendship.
I gather (cos I looked it up in Wikipedia, dinnI?) that The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, under its original UK title of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, won the Costa (ex-Whitbread) prize as Best First Novel. A well deserved recognition. I’m surprised it didn’t receive a World Fantasy Award, a Dagger or an Edgar. This is one of those novels that it’s far too easy for people to want to pop into one genre or another. Its great triumph, though, is that, despite all its playing with GAD tropes, it comes out at the end as simply — “simply,” ha! — a major contribution to the notion of what the 21st-century novel can do.
Oh, yes, and all this while being a compulsive page-turner. Beat that, Ian so-called McEwan.
That’s the brief version of what I wanted to say, anyway.
* The grammar of the relevant paragraph insists a “she” means Evelyn but, if you swap the word “she” for a clarificatory “Anna,” everything makes perfect sense.