There's something admirable about crime writers who take risks with their work, who try to do something different. Agatha Christie did this plenty of times, and so did Dorothy L. Sayers. And there are various examples among modern day writers. Of course, sometimes the risks don't pay off. Experiments can fail. Innovative books are often flawed - think of Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace's The Documents in the Case, a book sometimes criticised as drab, yet genuinely ground-breaking and in my opinion under-rated. Another example would be Freeman Wills Crofts' Antidote to Venom, a detective story with a moral message at its heart.
When I heard about Stuart Turton's bestselling debut, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I was at once keen to read it. In a note at the end of the paperback edition, he talks about discovering Agatha Christie at the age of eight and wanting to emulate her. So although I've never met him, I certainly have a fellow feeling for him. The energy and invention of his book seem to me to be absolutely admirable.
I want to be careful about what I say about this novel, so as to avoid spoilers, but it's widely known that it's an homage to the Golden Age with a difference - the luckless protagonist finds himself trapped in a number of different bodies as he tries to discover the truth about Evelyn Hardcastle's fate (which in turn entails discovering the truth about a crime 19 years earlier), and to see if he can change the course of history. In the classic manner, the setting is a country house, called Blackheath. There's a homicidal footman, a mysterious Plague Doctor, and much else besides.
This is a witty book, and although it calls for a huge amount of suspension of disbelief, the pace and drive of the first hundred pages or so ensure that Turton achieves a key goal - most readers, I'm sure, will be willing to buy into the premise. It's a complicated story, and a long one. In the latter stages, I felt that the author was probably trying a bit too hard to add on extra layers of meaning and complexity. There are also some turns of phrase that don't really fit in with a Golden Age story, and which I felt an editor should have picked up. I'm not convinced that the explanation of what is really going on at Blackheath stands up to much scrutiny, and for me, the motivation of the ultimate culprit was inadequately foreshadowed, thus weakening the power of that particular revelation. So the final part of the book didn't work as well for me as the very gripping early pages. No matter. Stuart Turton has written a novel which plays with Golden Age tropes in an absorbing and unusual way, and the result is something strikingly original. Quite something for a debut novel! I'll be fascinated to see what he comes up with next.