Turton, Stuart. The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle Sourcebooks Landmark, 2018.
[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]
This is one of those books that wind up on the stack because someone else in the house was reading it and enjoying it so much that I got curious and a little envious and said “Hey, let me read that when you’re done.” Although the title alone was enough to pique my curiosity.
How does someone die 7½ deaths?
I won’t tell. But I enjoyed finding out for myself immensely.
In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should mention that Groundhog Day is my favorite movie. That’s definitely relevant. I’m not alone in thinking so, either. The voluminous words of praise from a wide range of reviewers mention the Groundhog Day connection more than once. Also Twin Peaks. Also Agatha Christie. Granted, you have to be a certain age for most of that to ring any bells. But if you are, it all helps you grasp the book’s positioning.
If you’re not, we could start with genre. It’s a murder mystery. A “murder mystery set in a big British [hmm – I just assumed – by convention] manor house with a restricted cast of characters.”
But it’s also a “murder mystery set in a big manor house with a restricted cast of characters that incorporates time travel and some elements of science fiction.” You don’t run across those every few inches in the mystery section of your local giant bookstore.
Plus it includes moody atmospheric description. And romance. And action. And a masque ball. So, come to think of it, gothic romance is in the mix here as well.
Trans-genred, one might say, of this book.
Within that admittedly widely-cast perimeter, however, everything follows the rules and there are no irritating deus ex machinas. You could have figured out the ending … if you’d had the wit, and used psychology, and thought a little more deeply about the depths of the ordinary human depravity you already know all about. The clues are all there. Not, naturally, right from the beginning, but all in due course and before the end that you did not see coming even though you could have, should have, and in fact [partly, as usual] did.
[“I KNEW it … she HAD to be …” If you read mysteries with any frequency, I know you know what I mean.]
In other words, from a plot standpoint, this is one of the most satisfying mysteries I’ve read in maybe ever. Especially because of the time travel, which follows all its own self-imposed rules. That is rare in the world of time travel, and therefore wondrous.
As for the element of action: in this context, “action” means something like “swift forward momentum accompanied by detailed descriptions of violence.” The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has more than the usual amount of that for “a murder mystery set in a big manor house with a restricted cast of characters.” That’s not necessarily more than the usual amount for, say, Raymond Chandler or Lawrence Block. If you’re my mother-in-law, it will be over the top and off-putting; for me, it was edging into the red zone, but not “too far.” “Know thyself,” and don’t blame noir.
This book also raises more than the usual number of philosophical questions, for a murder mystery, about things like memory, identity, and “the self,” for instance, and about relational epistemologies, and about virtue ethics and character formation. This means you’ll have more fun with it if you read it with someone you can have those conversations with after you’re done. A good book club book, then, and not as good a one to read if the only other person in your life who reads your books is someone like my mother-in-law, who will bail on the gothic and the action, and never make it to the philosophy.
On the other hand, if you read books for the philosophy, you’re probably used to that kind of frustration by now.
On the other other hand, if you are used to that kind of frustration, you may have the lovely experience of getting to have that kind of conversation with someone you almost never get to have that kind of conversation with because it started out being about this book that you had both read. That’s a delightful bonus of The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, along with further evidence that context is everything.