Sunday 4 October 2020

#CBR12 Book 70: "The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle" by Stuart Turton

Page count: 519 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
"Gosford Park" meets "Groundhog Day" by way of Agatha Christie – the most inventive story you'll read this year.

Tonight, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed... again.

It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed.

But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot.

The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath...

This book, which was renamed The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle when it was published in the USA (so it wouldn't be confused with The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hugo) was the August selection in our fantasy/sci-fi book club. It very much mixes your traditional 1920s-1930s set house party cozy mystery at a country estate with a strange sci-fi element, where our protagonist wakes up in a new body every morning. The house party where Evelyn Hardcastle ends up murdered every night is set at a remote, rather worn down manor house surrounded by woods. Nearby is a graveyard, and the lake next to which one of the Hardcastle sons was brutally stabbed to death several decades ago. The house party is allegedly to celebrate Evelyn's betrothal, and there are a large number of posh guests convening to gossip, get drunk, hunt, and generally enjoy themselves at the Hardcastles' expense. All of these guests are also accompanied by servants, so there is no lack of murder suspects. 

Aiden, our protagonist, finds himself in a new host body every morning. Sometimes he's in the body of someone rich and influential, sometimes he's in the body of a servant. He inhabits each body from morning until evening but can switch back to an earlier body if his current host falls asleep or loses consciousness in a different way. He is deeply confused for quite a while (and the reader with him) until a mysterious figure dressed in an old plague doctor's costume explains to him that he has seven days to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. She dies at 11pm every evening, and if Aiden can figure out the name of the killer and give it to the plague doctor before the cycle is over, he is free to leave. If he fails, he will have his memory wiped and start the whole seven-day process over again. To further complicate matters, there are other individuals at the house party who are also trying to solve the murder, and it's not in their interest to co-operate with Aiden. Finally, to add a real slasher movie element to the proceedings - there's a psychopathic footman who is determined to kill all of Aiden's host bodies before he identifies the killer.

As well as being strongly influenced by Agatha Christie, there are elements of Black Mirror, Doctor Who, and Groundhog Day. When we discussed it during our book club meeting, we agreed that the book is very entertaining, even though very few of the characters we encounter in the book is especially likable and there is some truly egregious and very unfortunate fat-shaming in parts of the book (one of Aidan's host bodies is a very intelligent, but also very obese nobleman, and Aidan is clearly utterly disgusted to be "trapped" in that body). The book posits some interesting ideas on the nature of forgiveness and the efficacy of prisons as means of rehabilitation, but sadly doesn't really delve properly into them. The author seemed mostly concerned with his very high concept idea (Agatha Christie mystery meets Groundhog Day) and doesn't take a lot of time to really anything too deep or philosophical. 

Clever, unusual, and interesting as this book is, the fat-shaming aspect bothered most of the readers in my book club, and as far as I can see from online reviews has been enough of a problem to make it impossible for some readers to finish the book. Since I was pre-warned, so to speak, I forced myself to read, despite my intense discomfort, and I'm glad I continued because the central mystery of the book is cleverly structured, with just enough twists and turns that every time you think you've got an idea of what's happening, it turns out there's one final twist. 

This is the sort of book I would never have picked up on my own, so I'm glad I discovered it through my book club. This was Turton's debut novel and it won a bunch of awards. He has a new novel out any day now, which looks to be another unusual mystery. 

Judging a book by its cover: Not exactly the most exciting of covers, showing only the staircase in what seems to be an old house. The black and white floor tiles in the hall are a bit reminiscent of a chessboard, but the intricate game the characters in the book find themselves in is a lot more convoluted than a chess game. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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