The Devil and the Dark Water

Metadata

  • Media: #Books #Books 2021
    • Author: Stuart Turton
    • Status: read
    • Date: 2021-01-30
    • Tags: #fiction #mystery #historical #nautical #whodunnit
    • Rating: ★★★☆☆
    • Idea richness: ★★☆☆☆
    • Links: Highlights, Goodreads

Summary

"The beautiful thing about fear this large is that nobody will look beyond it. It can explain anything. I’ll carve this mark on to your chest, and everybody will believe the demon killed you. They won’t even think to question it. They’ll want to believe it. People like stories more than they like the truth."

A disgraced detective, his loyal bodyguard, a sadistic general of the East India Company, the general's unhappy wife, his mistress (and wife's best friend), the prodigy daughter, and a witchhunting preacher among others board a 'cursed' ship. With the detective locked away, his loyal friend/bodyguard and the general's wife take it upon themselves to figure out what plot threatens the ship. The further they get from land, the more devilish the scheme becomes as the bodies start piling up, a ghostly ship starts trailing them, and it seems a devil has indeed come aboard to reveal the secrets and drag them all down with it.

SPOILERS And yet, despite all the build up and so-obviously-supernatural-you-know-it's-going-to-be-a-frustrating-psyche-out events around the ship, the entire thing turns out to be an overly elaborate and completely unnecessary revenge plot to kill the sadistic general by the detective and the mistress (who are revealed to be brother and sister and old victims of the general).

Following an stilted romance and being put through hell by the brother-sister team, our two betrayed protagonists (the bodyguard and the wife) then... discover the truth and decide to throw in their lot with the murders to repeat the same stunt in future? Even though they've just been through a situation which proves how many innocent victims can get caught up even when pursuing a deserving target. Yeah, that happened. /SPOILERS

Themes

  • Inequality and injustice
  • What will you sacrifice for freedom
  • Mob mentality
  • Fear vs trust
  • Superstition

Review

"...the curse of authority was that you could never admit to losing it."

It's taken me a while but I’ve learned I dislike mysteries trying too hard to be smart by appearing as something they’re not. Last year B-The Honjin Murders helped crystalise that realisation and The Devil and the Dark Water just cemented it.

I wanted so badly to like this one (I tried so hard for Turton's previous mystery too, and actually rate that above this), but it fell flat for me. Could have still been an okay read but the ending left a sour taste in my mouth which I fully admit colours this review.

If you're looking for supernatural-tinged murder on the high seas, my recommendation would be to play Obra Dinn instead.

Things I loved...

  • Holmes meets Pirates of the Caribbean is a winning mashup.
  • The setting (trapped on a boat, potentially with a devil in human's guise, murderous passengers and crew, East India Company and dark histories) is a delightful powder keg of suspense and drama. The proliferation of murderous, supernatural warnings only built this up more.
  • All the composite pieces (the setting, the characters, the supernatural signs) had such promise... the problem for me was how they fit together.

Things I didn't...

  • Odd pacing. The ticking time bomb of Old Tom's ultimatum is a great device but got a bit lost.
  • I do this all the time but: trying to be too many things at once. I think this is partly due to having to play both sides (is it supernatural, is it not) instead of doubling down on one line of investigation.
  • The book is written in third person omnipresent perspective with each chapters focuses on a different character. I liked the approach but in execution it felt like a jarring halfway house as the view felt omnipresent but with long bits of the characters inner musings which felt like a similar voice to all the others. The philosophizing paragraphs of Arent and Sara especially started to drag and could easily have been cut down. That or pivot to a tighter, less omnipresent voice.
  • For a book which is heavy on characters musing on gender and social inequality and injustice, we only really get characters that are nobles or noble hangers on. The crew and 'lower classes' are almost entirely relegated to a mindless, murderous rabble. I suppose this could have been used to make a point but to me, it undercut any message that was trying to be delivered.
  • The mysterious character connections are primed for conflict (brilliant!) and should have been more enthralling. Instead, I ended up feeling detached. With all those connections, I expected more conflict and heartrending dilemmas akin to B-Once Upon a River.
  • Also Sammy, our resident discount Sherlock Holmes. SPOILERS I loved the more narcissist, unreliable detective bit he had going but we rarely see him and you can't help but assume he is involved. Then the ending happens and it feels like he should have either been a major character or somehow played a more minor role. /SPOILER
  • The ending. Everything about the ending.

Quotes

  • "The beautiful thing about fear this large is that nobody will look beyond it. It can explain anything. I’ll carve this mark on to your chest, and everybody will believe the demon killed you. They won’t even think to question it. They’ll want to believe it. People like stories more than they like the truth."
  • "Fear was too brittle a material to make good decisions from."
  • "Good sense sometimes sounds like cowardice when you write it down."
  • "‘Greed is capable of killing even the most cautious of men.’"
  • "‘They all smell like piss. It’s not a good salve if it doesn’t smell like piss.’"
  • "Some songs weren’t mere songs. They were memories curled tight and set alight."

Scrapbook Concepts

  • The bear and the sparrow #characters
  • the Company’s ruling body, the enigmatic Gentlemen 17 #factions
  • The Folly: a mysterious cargo box in the ship
  • Trapped on a ship with a devil possessing one of the passengers
  • Thief-taker #fragments
  • "Crauwels had seen the look before. The sea had him. It splashed behind his eyes and carried sour on his breath. Every man on the ship knew that look, when the cold emptiness of the ocean filled you up. There wasn’t any rest once the sea got inside you. People drowned standing up."
  • "In the ocean’s darkness, the Eighth Lantern opened its eye."
  • ‘They reckon our sins lie beneath it like wrecks on the ocean bed. Dark water is our soul, and Old Tom is swimming within it.’ --> A dungeon in a monsters soul #dungeon