Review: The Devil and The Dark Water by Stuart Turton

A murder on the high seas. A detective duo. A demon who may or may not exist.

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… The breathtaking new novel from Stuart Turton, author of the Sunday Times bestseller, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, winner of the Costa Best First Novel Award.

“He knew there was no God waiting. No devil. No saints or sinners. There were only people and the stories they told themselves.”

Bookworms gather! Gather! It’s time to embark on an unmissable adventure; join the glorious vessel, the Saardam, voyage across the seas that has been marked by the Devil as doomed. Abandon ship?! I think not!

The Devil and the Dark Water was one of my most anticipated reads of 2020 and I’m beyond pleased to say it didn’t disappoint. It’s a beguiling story that is a wonderful addition to the mystery genre and has cemented Stuart Turton as a name never to overlook.

We begin with a sudden death – before we’ve even left port. As the cast of characters get ready to set sail, a leper sets himself on fire and condemns the ship by the will of the Devil to meet a cursed and wrecked fate. Naturally, people are unsettled, but it doesn’t take long for the mass to brush it off as an unfortunate consequence of those suffering leprosy – and board the ship they do and off they go. It doesn’t take long for the curse to appear very real, with more deaths and an ominous symbol appearing everywhere, there’s no escaping that the Devil is after them…

To help us piece together what the Dickens is going on, we have renowned detective Samuel ‘Sammy’ Pips and his sidekick Arent. The only problem? Well, Sammy is in the brig for undisclosed crimes and isn’t at hand to help. So that leaves us with amateur-on-his-own Arent tasked with solving the mystery of what has targeted the ship. And away we go!

On the point of the characters, I’ll begin there. The cast of characters were such an array. They were all so good the more and more they were established, they stood on their own and I didn’t forget who anyone was (as often happens with a large character list). Although it was a little hard to work out who was who when the flashback explanations happened. We alternate following Arent, Sara and occasionally from other characters too, which allowed a larger portrayal of the ongoings of the ship and the mystery.

I’d probably say my favourite part of the whole book was the respect I felt Turton gave female characters. They weren’t side characters. Instead they were main characters of
equal worth to the male characters. Their development, progression and contribution to the story was equal. Sara, is the trapped the wife of the man Arent considers his Uncle, and their marriage is not one of love and joy, to say the least. It was really enjoyable to read her coming further into her own and not conforming to the role her husband (and many men on board too) desired. Sara teams up with Arent to help the effort to solve what is going on, and their dynamic was really enjoyable and refreshing (as she and other women contributed so much) that actually makes me want to read the whole thing again in the future.

Although, I need to mention, the book did feel a little overly long. There were definitely chapters that could have been cut and wouldn’t have been missed, and there was also some bits of repetition like the theme of Sara and her wish for freedom and Creesjie’s grief over her husband. Creesjie’s in particular I’m certain was word for word repetition of regurgitated sentences.

I relished the historical fiction side through the ships details, the rank of the crew and status of the nobility aboard. I couldn’t help but see snippets of Pirates of the Caribbean in my mind as I read about the running of the ship, the way the characters were dressed etc. But obviously this is far, far more menacing in its air. The whole way through the book is bubbling with a sinister presence that made it hard to put the book down.

Regrettably, toward the end, the last 5% lost me. I still don’t feel satisfied with the ending. It was info dump overload that my brain struggled to process it all, it felt rather disjointed from the rest of the story and I ultimately ended up feeling underwhelmed with how it finished. Bamboozled and dissatisfied sadly.
[However, I will add to just be completely fair, I was struggling with my father’s terminal cancer diagnosis by the end of the book, so it may just have been my headspace. I don’t think it was, but I’ll add that in the hope of being fair, in case it was genuinely me and not the book itself.]

But I cannot commend enough how many threads were woven together. It is a testament to Turton’s excellent planning, execution and imagination to pull off a story that interconnects in the ways it did. Some bits I figured out, but I was never fully certain and I didn’t predict the entire ending to the mystery. I’m in awe of Turton to be quite frank.

All in all, Stuart Turton knows how to craft an entertaining mystery to get invested in and look forward to reading. I was utterly enthralled. It was a real page turner that plagued my thoughts, it’s just unfortunate I struggled with the ending. Maybe that’ll be better when I reread it in future, because I certainly will, as it was too clever and transportive to resist returning to the Saardam again. I will keep an eye on the horizon for Old Tom’s mark whatever Turton comes up with next, because with The Devil and the Dark Water, it’s guaranteed I’m interested. Don’t miss this deadly voyage!

Thank you kindly to the publishers for providing me with an e-ARC in exchange for this honest review.


Buy It Now

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
Published October 2020
Genre: mystery/thriller, historical fiction
Special/exclusive editions: Waterstones, Forbidden Planet and Goldsboro Books


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