A journey from Batavia, in what is now Indonesia, to Amsterdam took eight months in the 1630s. Eight months on a cramped East Indiaman under 60 meters in length (usually), in company of 100+ sailors, with nothing to wash with but seawater and increasingly stale or rotten rations, sounds like hell. Stuart Turton makes the trip into a literal hell in The Devil and the Dark Water as greed, superstition, and old scores conspire into one of the most tangled—and brilliant—plots I’ve read.
In the author’s note at the end of The Devil and the Dark Water, Turton explains that he was inspired by the tale of the shipwrecked Batavia and its crew and passengers. It turns out that I’ve listened to two podcast accounts of the wreck of the Batavia and its aftermath (a serious one on Casefile and a comedic version on The Dollop). Some of the names in Turton’s novel sounded familiar. What Turton does with the actual history, however, is utterly original.
The Devil and the Dark Water opens as the Saardam boards in Batavia. The governor general, Jan Haan, wants to get back to Amsterdam urgently. His future fortune depends on it. His wife has her own schemes. In fact, everyone we meet in the first chapter has a scheme or a deal. Our protagonist, Arent Hayes, is the most open about his goals. He wants to free his mentor, the great detective Sammy Pipps, from imprisonment and possible execution back in the United Provinces. As all of the schemes and plots and doublecrosses start to unspool, an already dangerous voyage to Europe gets even more dangerous.
The Devil and the Dark Water is made even better by a development that I love in fiction: the possibility of the supernatural. On the one hand, it’s not hard for me to believe that a determined criminal or criminals could cook up an elaborate revenge plot. I listen to enough true crime podcasts to know that a significantly motivated revenger with enough time can come up with all kinds of things. On the other, it’s really hard to find a rational explanation for a disappearing, murderous leper; an extra possibly ghost ship in the fleet; and the appearance all over the ship of a sign associated with a devil that ravaged the Provinces thirty years before the events of The Devil and the Dark Water. Turton had me guessing with every chapter.
Not only was the plot stellar, but I adored Arent Hayes. Hayes was a mercenary and was such a ferocious fighter that there are apparently songs about his feats during the Siege of Breda. As a big man with a reputation as a blunt instrument, Arent suffers from some serious self-doubt about his intellectual capabilities. He sees his only solo case as a failure, and so tries to hide behind Pipps’ brilliance. (Pipps reads like a seventeenth century, slightly foppish version of Sherlock Holmes.) But Haan, who turns out to be Arent’s sort of-uncle, orders Arent to figure out just what in the hell (or Hell) is going on aboard the Saardam. Arent has to master his own doubts as well as question a ship full of people who really don’t want their secrets uncovered (some of whom are really good with knives). I loved how heroic Arent was. On a ship full of villains, he and his surprise partner in crime seem to be the only ones trying to avert a demonic bloodbath.
The Devil and the Dark Water is a ripping yarn I can’t say enough good things about. I also read Turton’s The 7 1/2 Lives of Evelyn Hardcastle and loved it, so I plan to keep an eye out for anything the imaginative Turton writes in the future. I love what he does to my genre expectations and his plots are absolutely stunning.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.