It's very rare that that books have much popular presence in modern entertainment. Not everybody can name a current book that came out in the last five months. It could be argued that the last breakthrough success of the medium was the Harry Potter series in the late 90s and early 2000s. However, this doesn't mean that most books that come out are bad or not worth noticing. "The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle" is the first novel by freelance journalist Stuart Turton. Published just last year, the book has been growing in popularity and interest among readers in the last few months. Could this be the next mainstream breakthrough or should it fall back into obscurity?
The plot is a complicated blend of "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Source Code." A man with no memory has been tasked to solve a murder in an old mansion by reliving the same day through the eyes of seven different hosts. Once the day ends, he is transported into another body to start the day over again. He must use their resources and intelligence to find the killer. If he doesn't, he will be trapped in the loop forever, never knowing who put him there or why.
While the setup is incredibly intriguing and executed well, the most entertaining part of the book is the way its written. Unlike a lot of modern novels, "Seven Deaths" isn't written to maximize audience immersion through intensity. The tone is almost mild, like its being told by a narrator who's viewing the whole affair with a detached curiosity. It really captures the same sort of tone that novels like "Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde" have, where the narrator is more of a bystander than a character. This is mostly because the main character is an amnesiac and any personality he has is dependent on whose body/mind he occupies.
This narrative trick had the serious possibility of losing audience investment. When you have a character you know nothing about and no solid personality, it can be very difficult to make us care about them. However, Turton manages to make the story compelling through other interesting characters. Each of the hosts for our lead is well-written, with powerful personalities and interesting conflicts with the other house guests. By the end of the story, you actually want to see our narrator succeed and achieve his goals.
One legitimate criticism is that there's a bit too many characters to keep track of. When there are multiple people in one room being described, it's difficult to keep track of who's who without visual aid. The other is that the final reveal feels kind of cheap. There are enough clues throughout to figure out some of the ultimate mystery, but not all of it. However, this doesn't feel like that much of a disappointment because A) there's a second mystery that the reader can solve and B) the investment is more about whether or not the characters will survive and succeed rather than solving the mystery.
In the end, "The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle" is an engaging read. Its uniquely retro writing style is an engaging oddity. It's mercifully devoid of the unwelcome intensity and mean spirit that plagues so many of today's mystery novels. And the mystery is frustratingly ingenious, if a bit unfair. If you like shows like "Edeavour" or "Midsomer Murders" or books like "And Then There Were Fewer," then pick up a copy as soon as you can.