The 7-1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
The 7-1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is both derivative and completely original. Drawing on devices seen in Quantum Leap, Doctor Who, and Groundhog Day, and reflective of 1920s English estate mysteries such as those by Agatha Christie, Stuart Turton combines existing conventions into a surprising and strange mystery.
Our narrator, who we later learn is Aiden Bishop, wakes up in a forest in a body he doesn’t recognize as his own. He sees a young woman being chased by a man and slightly hesitates before following. When he hears a gunshot, he is overcome with guilt at the possibility his fear caused a woman’s death. A mysterious and ominous figure puts a heavy object, a compass, in his pocket and whispers “East” in his ear.
Returning to Blackheath, a once grand but now decrepit mansion, Aiden learns that trying to get the other occupants of Blackheath to believe he saw a murder is the least of his problems. A man in a plague doctor costume tells him the rules of the “game.” A woman is to be killed that night, and he must solve the murder by 11:00 p.m. If he does not solve the mystery, he is conveyed into another host body, for a total of eight hosts; without a resolution, the loop begins again. What’s more, a sadistic Footman is stalking him, and he has competition to solve the mystery.
As Aiden navigates the loop through his host bodies, the book offers up a compelling mysteries on multiple levels. While the basic question is who kills Evelyn Hardcastle, the reader is also caught up in who the Footman is, who the competition is, and who is behind the “game.” At the same time, Aiden confronts deeper themes: how can one overcome the limitations of the body, how fluid is identity, and how absolute is fate?
The plot is carefully constructed–I’m sure I missed details, though I tried hard to pay attention!–and the book is clever and well-written. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t my style of writing. It definitely reflected the style of the mystery novels from which it draws inspiration. At the same time, I’m glad I read it, and I think it will reward readers who like new and innovative ways to approach storytelling.