The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is Stuart Turton’s debut novel. Set in an English country manor in the early 20th century, our protagonist awakens in the forest yelling the name Anna but remembering nothing else. He is mysteriously guided back to Blackheath manor, a rundown old estate owned by the Hardcastle family, who are hosting a ball to celebrate the return of their daughter Evelyn from Paris. While struggling to remember who he is, our protagonist soon learns that his mind is inhabiting the body of someone other than himself. He will cycle throughout eight different host bodies, reliving the same day at Blackheath over and over, until he solves the mystery of Evelyn’s murder. Guided by a mysterious figure in a plague doctor outfit, he must contend with two rivals to solve this mystery. The answer is the key to their freedom that only one of them can claim.
Gracing the cover of this book are comparisons to Groundhog Day and the works of Agatha Christie, which is certainly apt, but only just scratches the surface of how gloriously elaborate this story is. For our protagonist, Aiden Smith, the same day is indeed repeating over and over. However, he is not getting a redo of the day with each successive host. He does indeed experience a collective eight days of time in eight bodies, but it is all contained within a singular day. All present, past, and future hosts are moving about simultaneously. With future hosts largely a mystery to Aiden, I loved how the actions of different characters kept me guessing. Rather innocuous encounters later have a deeper meaning, and he finds himself more involved in some dramatic developments than we at first realize.
The interplay between Aiden and his hosts was a fascinating facet of the story. He isn’t merely in the driver’s seat, so to speak, while possessing the body of another. The personality, temperament, and capabilities of each host bleeds over into him as well. His first host, Sebastian Bell, is a coward. As such, while in this host body Aiden is a coward too, having profound difficulty when faced with confrontation or violence. I loved how this structure allowed for factors outside of his control to both help and hinder him. Another host, for instance, is old and obese, limiting mobility, but also the smartest among them. Yet another is more physically capable, but a sexual predator with a more depraved idiosyncrasies that Aiden must work to suppress. The presence of the hosts’ personalities is also a great formulation for how easily he manages to blend in with people who know a respective host as well.
While there were some threads I could piece together along with Aiden, I don’t feel this mystery is one the reader should find themselves trying to solve on their own. I didn’t find it difficult to follow, but the story is quite labyrinthine thanks to the frequent hopping between hosts. It didn’t really feel to me like piecing together clues on my own was on the table. Perhaps those more seasoned with the genre could do better, but not myself. I was very much along for the ride and happy in that role as reader. The plot is full of colourful characters—most of them terrible people hiding behind the veneer of wealth and class, peril to avoid or suffer through, as fortune dictates, and secrets squirreled within every nook and cranny.
For a while I expected I would give this book full marks, but towards the end I ran into an issue. Time travel is an inherently absurd concept, so it is very difficult, if impossible, to formulate an intricate plot such as this and have everything work seamlessly. There is, for instance, a bootstrap paradox—when time travel causes something to have no discernible point of origin—that I had no problem accepting as a mind-bending consequence of Aiden’s impossible predicament. What I do have a problem with, however, is the author breaking his own rules.
Now, this is a bit muddy because what I’m criticizing is explicitly established. At one point in the story Aiden witnesses a key moment play out differently than he had in a previous host, learning that the events of the day can be changed. It was set into words on the page. The problem I have with this is that it breaks an implied rule set out earlier: everything is happening in one day; a day which Aiden experiences eight times through different hosts. He interacts with future versions of his consciousness at a number of points and benefits from past/future actions. He depends on them, in fact. Technically, that means however things turn out is a foregone conclusion, we just have to go through the motions like Aiden does to get there and finally see how everything fits together.
Instead of everything fitting together, Aiden begins making changes to avoid certain peril he has seen affecting his future self, or just through dumb luck manages to alter events without much premeditation. This began compounding in ways that just didn’t sit well with me. On top of all this, information started to become withheld from the reader. So much of this novel is spent intimately understanding Aiden’s emotional state in relation to his host’s influence as well as what he is thinking. Toward the end he begins reaching conclusions we don’t really get to see the thought processes for. There are bread crumbs I noticed retrospectively, to be fair, but it seemed to me to be somewhat of a ploy for the benefit of certain plot developments.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a very good novel, especially considering it is the author’s debut, and more than worth checking out. The story is an ambitiously complex web with a multitude of moving parts that crafts something unique yet familiar thanks to its use of murder mystery tropes. At its heart is an earnest yet subdued look at what determines our sense of self as well, questioning how we keep hold of who we are and whether we can trust ourselves to let go of our worst traits. I just wish I’d found the ending more satisfying. By playing fast and loose with the structure of its world, without much justification for it, things fell a little short by the end.
My Rating: 4 out of 5