Review of ‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ by Stuart Turton
originally posted on my blog Digital Amrit.
tl;dr: ‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ is a fantastic and entertaining Holmesian mystery with unexpected twists and turns.
This story takes place in 1634, on a Dutch East India company ship sailing from Indonesia to Amsterdam. The governor of the colony is onboard along with his wife and daughter, his mistress and her sons as well as some mysterious cargo which occupies most of the shipment. The usual complement of the crew, as well as other passengers, are also sailing along with them. They encounter mysterious and occultist symbols, a ghost ship whose every appearance causes misfortunes on the vessel, murders and other crimes. But they also have the good fortune of having the world’s foremost detective Samuel Pipps as well as his assistant Arent Hayes. But Samuel Pipps is in chains and locked up. It is up to Arent Hayes to solve these mysteries and save the people on the Indiaman.
I cannot avoid a comparison to Stuart Turton’s previous book — ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ since they are similar in a lot of ways and yet different too.
In my review of ‘Seven Deaths’, I had mentioned that the mystery was more like a classic Agatha Christie with a Hercules Poirot way of deducing the mystery. Stuart Turton has turned to a different style but an equally (and arguably more famous) effective style of detection — Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’. There is so much Holmes nostalgia here. The homages range from the way the detective and his partner work together and deduce by observation to call-outs to specific stories like ‘The Dancing Men’, ‘The Speckled Band’ and ‘The Man with the Crooked Lip’. The atmosphere is sufficiently spooky and keeps the reader guessing as to the origins of the occult symbols and the inexplicable happenings. I don’t have to draw comparisons to ‘The Hound of Baskervilles’, but the vibes are quite similar.
Yet, Stuart Torton also finds a way to turn things on their head while maintaining the essence of the stories and characters. For example — Arent Hayes, while not a genius like Samuel Pipps, is as astute and making deductions. Women characters, who do not get a prominent treatment in a Holmes’s story (other than A Scandal in Bohemia’), are strong, independent and quite capable of solving many of the mysteries in this book.
His writing is as strong as ever. If anything, it has become better. I would also argue that ‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ has faster pacing too. I did not put down this book even once and finished it in a single sitting. Also, given that plot in ‘Seven Deaths’ is complicated and could put people off, ‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ is more approachable and therefore, likely to have a much higher rating.
Overall, I strongly recommend ‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ to all readers looking for something intellectually satisfying, enthralling and entertaining.