Evil acts aboard 17th-century vessel in maritime mystery

British novelist Stuart Turton began writing The Devil And The Dark Water (right) two weeks after his daughter was born and finished it just after her second birthday.
British novelist Stuart Turton began writing The Devil And The Dark Water (right) two weeks after his daughter was born and finished it just after her second birthday.PHOTOS: CHARLOTTE GRAHAM, RAVEN BOOKS

A missed flight to Singapore set off the chain of events that led to British novelist Stuart Turton's new murder mystery, The Devil And The Dark Water.

He had been backpacking around Australia in 2003 and had meant to fly out of Perth, but it turned out he had booked the wrong flight.

While in limbo, he decided to visit the maritime museum, where he came across the wreckage of the Batavia, a Dutch East India Company merchant vessel that ran aground on a tiny island off the coast of Western Australia in 1629.

One of the survivors took control of the others and orchestrated a litany of atrocities, including at least 100 murders, before rescue came.

Turton was struck by the horror of the story, but also by the bravery of one of the soldiers on board who led a resistance and the ship's captain, who sailed for over a month to Batavia, or present-day Jakarta, to get help.

"All that heroism, wrapped up with all that evil, really stuck with me," says the 40-year-old over Skype from his home in Hertfordshire, Britain.

"Writing my first book just destroyed me, and I wanted to write something completely different."

He is referring to his best-selling debut, The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018), a high-concept thriller set in a 1920s English manor, where the same day repeats itself Groundhog Day-style, always ending with Evelyn appearing to shoot herself at a party held in her honour.

The protagonist wakes up in the body of a different guest every day until he can identify Evelyn's killer and break the cycle. If he fails to solve the murder after eight hosts, his memory is wiped clean, and the process has been restarted innumerable times.

"That book was so intricately plotted, it drove me mad," says Turton. He had a huge spreadsheet that charted what was happening to each character every minute of the time loop and a map of the house on his bedroom wall on which to plot their movements.

He had always wanted to write a mystery in the style of Agatha Christie, the grande dame of crime fiction, but the obvious problem was that everything he thought of, she had already done.

It took him a decade to come up with the idea for Seven Deaths, at which point he was working as a travel journalist in Dubai and had to persuade his then-girlfriend, now wife, to move back to England with him so he could work on it in the appropriate atmosphere.

The book has been optioned for television and won the Best First Novel prize at the Costa Book Awards. Turton got the news while on a train. "I wanted to scream and jump up and down, but they told me it was top secret, so I had to go into the train toilet to ring my wife."

Having done a Golden Age mystery, he wanted to try his hand at riffing off another great detective: Sherlock Holmes.

Turton loves Christie's novels unreservedly, but has a more complicated relationship with Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary sleuth. "Nobody ever seems to recognise that Holmes is a horrible human being," he says. "And Watson (his sidekick) is a lovely, clever character, but he's just there to look stupid next to Sherlock Holmes."

The Devil And The Dark Water unfolds almost entirely on board a Dutch ship, the Saardam, which is sailing from Batavia to Amsterdam. Many ill omens begin to occur at sea: the disappearance of a valuable artefact, the apparition of a leper who died before the voyage began and the lantern of a ghostly ship that pursues the Saardam.

The novel has a Holmes-like character, the genius detective Samuel Pipps, but he spends most of the book in prison.

Instead, it is up to other passengers, such as Pipps's bodyguard and best friend, Lieutenant Arent Hayes, or Sara Wessel, the governor general's abused wife, to solve the mystery of the curse, even as the murders come thick and fast.

Unfortunately, writing The Devil And The Dark Water was also an awful experience, says Turton ruefully. "I think it's just the way I write."

He began the novel two weeks after his daughter was born and finished it just after her second birthday, juggling writing with caring for a newborn. "For the first year at least, I was writing words but they weren't connected to each other or making any sense."

Still, he is looking forward to his next mystery novel, for which he might attempt the noir genre, in the vein of Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe.

"I would love to write in that style, but it's so American, I don't know if I could pull it off. But I would love to try."

•The Devil And The Dark Water ($27.18) is available for pre-order at bit.ly/DevilDW_ST

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2020, with the headline 'Evil acts aboard 17th-century vessel in maritime mystery'. Print Edition | Subscribe