The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton – Review
By Sandra Callard
Do you believe in demons, the devil, hell, or any of the supernaturals that may or may not exist? Devils, demons and magic abound in the latest offering from author Stuart Turton. The Devil and the Dark Water is a maritime adventure aboard the passenger ship Saardam during the seventeenth century and, back then, most people did think that such creatures stalked the land or, in this case, the sea. As the ship leaves the shores of the fictitious state of Batavia, it faces a hazardous eight-month journey to Amsterdam – a journey which every man aboard hopes he will survive, whilst knowing that hundreds will not.
The ship is cursed by a leper as the passengers board, and their safety will be in the hands of Samuel Pipps, a man of huge intelligence with a record of hunting down murderers and cracking impossible cases, and Arent Hayes, a huge and imposing mercenary who has never been beaten in a fight. He is a true friend of Sammy’s, who appears to be a maritime Sherlock Holmes, as his detective skills are on a par with his Victorian equivalent.
The horrors soon begin aboard the Saardam, and Turton’s descriptive power is truly outstanding. It is so good that I found myself cringing in horror as the devil attacks or breathing with relief as each hideous incident is over. The suspense is palpable, and I did find it quite stressful to read at times. I occasionally needed a break with a cup of tea as I ploughed my way through the fairly hefty book, but all credit to the author for invoking this response.
“Attention to detail”
Of course, even in this most desperate of situations, a love story of sorts can occur, and the author’s telling of how Arent and Sara’s love emerges in this horrifyingly barbaric atmosphere is sensitively done. Each of Turton’s characters rise from the pages of the book with a vivid life of their own. His characterisation is superb, and the deadly ones have a particularly horrific and vile presence.
The maritime details of a sixteenth century ship are quite fascinating and would have had to involve many hours of research to appear so convincingly correct. Sailing was a brutal business in those days. Sailors were treated savagely and became savages themselves in turn, and many punishments and disagreements ended in death. How these deaths were dealt with is astonishing, as the dead were treated with more humanity and care than the living ever were. I have an interest in history but very little knowledge of maritime history, and this book is almost a lesson in exactly that and, as such, is a fascinating addition to the narrative of this chronicle.
The story is long and complicated. The names of the majority of the characters are strange and defy pronunciation (I just had to guess) which slows down the reading and the immediate character recognition. Luckily, the author has included a ‘manifest’, or list, of the book’s characters, so a quick look at this will remind the reader who the characters are.
As the story progresses, it gets more complicated which again requires a degree of concentration and, as the mystery unfolds, the same attention to detail is needed. It is not an easy read for these reasons, but it is nevertheless a compelling and compulsive read, and certainly one of the most original murder stories I have ever read.
‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ by Stuart Turton is published by Bloomsbury