“Sammy Pipps isn’t simply clever. He can lift up the edges of the world and peek beneath. He has a gift I’ll never understand. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
TITLE & AUTHOR: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
GENRE: Mystery/Historical Fiction
FIRST PUBLISHED : October 6th 2020, by Sourcebooks Landmark
MY RATING: 4.5/5
It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported to Amsterdam to be executed for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent.
But no sooner are they out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A twice-dead leper stalks the decks. Strange symbols appear on the sails. Livestock is slaughtered.
And then three passengers are marked for death, including Samuel.
Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?
With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent can solve a mystery that connects every passenger onboard. A mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board.
After reading and loving The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton’s next novel became the most expected publication I was looking forward to since I became a reader. Because his first novel is one of my ultimate favorites, naturally I had very high expectations for his second one. I’m happy to say I wasn’t in the least disappointed, but I cannot say The Devil and the Dark Water exceeded my expectations either.
On the very first page we’re thrown into an adventure we feel we should already know something about. Sure, there’s a cast of characters, but the first few chapters felt like being thrown into episode 4 of Sherlock, without knowing some basics. All is quickly explained, but the introduction to this felt just a bit weird. I’m using Sherlock as an example because it pretty much fits.
Samuel ‘Sammy’ Pipps is the world’s greatest detective and problem solver. He looks at you once and can determine what you ate last, where you travelled a week ago, and who is the father of your neighbor’s illegitimate child. Just like Sherlock. And just like him, Sammy has a faithful companion – a huge and a rough-around-the-edges ex-soldier Arent Hayes. Sammy and Arent have found themselves on business in Batavia (Today’s Jakarta, Indonesia), where they’re about to board a ship in the East India Company fleet, headed for Amsterdam on its usual route, transporting goods, spices, nobles, and prisoners. Only Sammy, the famous detective, is the prisoner now. Arent has no idea for what crime was Sammy arrested, only that he has to help him endure the months-long overseas voyage, which was a deadly thing in the 17th century for a noble in his fancy cabin, let alone a prisoner in a 1×1 meter filthy bunk, deep in the ship’s airless maw.
The ship is just about to set sail when a scary leper climbs a cart, starts speaking in tongues and sets himself on fire in front of all the passengers, and a strange mark appears on the sails – the mark of Old Tom, who some say is the devil himself. Arent immediately rushes to the leper’s aid, helped by Sara Wessel, another passenger of the ship, and as it turns out, the wife of Governor General Jan Haan, the man in charge of everything here. The leper unfortunately dies, but not before laying a curse on the Saardam, the main ship of the fleet, literally condemning everyone aboard to a horrifying death.
Questions arise of how will the curse come to pass, who is to be suspected on the ship, and how to prevent these awful events from happening, and since Sammy is in chains, it falls on Arent to solve this devilish mystery. He is joined in the mission by the ever curious Sara, who is a woman ahead of her time, constrained by the patriarchal society and husband watching her every move. They will face an enemy of the worst kind – invisible, deadly, and cunning, promising the passengers their utmost desires, all in exchange for a favor.
Once the plot picks up and you learn all the strange Dutch names and their pronunciations, this book clearly becomes an adventure hardly anyone knows how to write these days. It might seem pretentious drawing such a strong parallel to Sherlock and Watson, and I honestly don’t think any other writer could pull it off, but Turton is a mage. He just needs a bit more time and writing to become the archmage, but he’s definitely on the right track.
The Devil and the Dark Water is a raging adventure, the sort where not a single chapter is dull or without event, where there are probably 20 important characters and they’re all Dutch but you somehow know how to pronounce their names and titles and favorite foods, because that’s how Turton fleshes out his cast of characters. This novel is BEGGING for a movie, just like Evelyn Hardcastle, but it has to happen in right hands or all fails. I love Turton’s style, and with only two novels it’s very clear he has a style, and it’s a magnificent one. He’s very good with words, with gorgeous descriptions, quotable paragraphs and plot twists, and he’s a natural at writing a character who is a 17th century Dutch noble lady but somehow relatable to you, sitting in a 2020 covid quarantine, in your pajamas, snacking on a biscotti. A mage I tell you.
The one thing I don’t think Stuart Turton is still excellent at is endings. However brilliant his plot twists, and The Devil and the Dark Water has a huge whodunnit reveal, I still felt just a tad robbed by what was revealed, hence the 4.5 star rating. I felt exactly the same in Evelyn Hardcastle, but the difference was that it was my first Turton novel, and that the time-loop, body changing, groundhog day thing was hideously brilliant. In this novel, the plot is extremely interesting, but not as much as in Evelyn. It’s not a big difference at all, mind you, just a 0.5 difference I couldn’t shake off. The expectations were humongous after all.
Now without comparing anything, because we don’t have to always compare everything and expect people to outdo their past work and brilliance itself, I will say this is a really fun, interesting, devilish adventure. I will definitely read it again and again, and I will read a napkin if Turton writes something on it, because he’s a genius and I’m a huge fan. And if you, dear reader, love Agatha Christie’s novels, or just a good mystery in general, look no further!
A huge thank-you to Bloomsbury Publishing and their Eleanor Marie Rose for providing me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Stuart Turton is an English internationally bestselling author and journalist. Turton’s debut novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (released in the US as The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle) won the First Novel Award at the 2018 Costa Book Awards and has sold in 28 languages. Since publication, it has sold over 200,000 copies in the UK. In an interview given to The Guardian, he described writing the book as “just awful”. In October 2020 Turton’s second novel was published, The Devil and the Dark Water. It was shortlisted for the 2020 Books Are My Bag Fiction Award. It was also selected for Between the Covers, a seven-part book TV programme on BBC Two hosted by Sara Cox.