Book Report: Stuart Turton’s The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Guess who’s keeping her promiser to herself to read more? That’s right, me. For the past several years, really, I’ve been vexed by my lack of interest in reading and for someone’s who’s entire early childhood identity was reading, this sudden onset aversion to reading of any sort unless it was Apple News (ugh…) was jarring.

But then I got myself together and realized, like any other discipline, this is building a muscle. I’ve had the muscle before and I’ll have it again. And since I’m a deep, deep lover of all things mystery, I thought this was a promising choice. It was also part of my kindle prime subscription…and it was already downloaded so…win.

If you’re looking closely, you’ll see this picture is the audiobook cover…I did *read* the book

My Review Score: 6 1/2 out of 10

All Chaos, No Elegance

I was very excited to get started on this, primarily because it was a mystery whose cover seemed to evoke the era of the greatest mystery writer: Agatha Christie. The art deco- inspired design just screamed, “This is a legitimate mystery story,” as opposed to the mystery-light we’ve seen just churned out by every wannabe Agatha in the last 20 years. The look of this set the bar high.

Then we dive directly into a Victorian-era setting–some kind of estate or manor house on what sounded like it could be the moors of England–and my Sherlock Holmesian sniffer was aroused. Okay, I thought. Already two motifs suggesting this is going to be a *serious* mystery novel…like with a mystery I can’t solve in the first 20 pages.And I was right on one count; I did not solve the mystery on the first 20, and also the following 447 pages. In fact, when the mystery was “solved” for me at the end, I had that slightly annoyed sense of Huh? What now? Wait…whaaaat?

Even after reading the end a couple times, I’m scratching my head. You know, the reason I love mysteries is because they present a bounded, challenging puzzle: ultimately, we the reader, are invited to consider and participate in putting together the puzzle pieces of a puzzle that’s revealed to us piecemeal, sometimes incompletely and sometimes including puzzle pieces that aren’t part of the solution. It’s the participatory experience of “figuring it out” that makes it a rewarding genre but also because we participate in a kind of elegance: we make sense out of chaos and, in the end, come up with one answer to tie all of these pieces together and provide an explanation. It’s satisfying and feels like we’ve accomplished something and it proves we’re clever. Mysteries have to deliver a lot to be good.

In my reading, Turton got a lot of it right but missed out on two key components.

Complicated Does Not Complex Make

You know, in almost every academic discipline and a lot of applied disciplines, there’s an ultimate search for “elegance”: philosophers and theoretical disciplines search for elegant theories; engineers and scientists look for elegant solutions and laws, even criminals look for elegance in crimes. In this sense, elegance encapsulates a complexity in simplicity; what is the one theory that’s specific enough to hold weight but that applies to a universal set of circumstances, what is the simplest way to explain or solve a complex problem. The elegance is in the paradox of simplicity ruling complexity.

The first issue I had with Turton’s 7 1/2 Deaths was the complication without the real complexity, in several dimensions. Without giving anything away, throughout the novel, Turton messes with the reader’s sense of time, character, setting, and relationship to the story. None of those are novel unto themselves; in fact, in my mind, some of the best mysteries also do that but with one or two of the dimensions…not all.

When we’re vaulted into the story in the first chapter, we’re in a character who is in distress, running through the woods, he’s injured, he just thinks he saw a murder happen but isn’t sure. This is a great start. But then, we also learn he doesn’t have any memory of who he is. Okay, so the puzzle we’re solving is what’s up with this guy…we need to find out who he is. We were on a great path. That first chapter is mwah, chef’s kiss perfect. But then, the entire scenario changes. And then it does again. And again. By my estimation, it’s not until almost 1/3 into the book that the reason for this device is revealed. Not only is it a long time to “just play along as the game reader” but to keep track of characters who may or may not be important to solving the puzzle. But wait, now I’ve lost what the puzzle is we’re trying to solve because three other potential puzzles have popped up.

What is happening? I asked myself about 12 times per chapter. When you do finally get some answers, it’s already 2/3 of the way through the book and, nonspoiler alert, the chapter heading still says “Day Two (continued).” I felt like I needed an organizational flow chart to keep up with who I am, where I am, what my purpose is, what I’m trying to do and why, and determine what’s important to know and what isn’t.

It was like “Jane Austen Meets Agatha Christie (kinda) at Jane Eyre’s House for murder(s).”

me

This might be a lot of fun for some but I grew wary of this about halfway through the book. It actually ceased to be fun because nothing was grounded. I didn’t have a sense of what was real. I get the sense that might’ve been the point of the book and that’s where I have to ask why?

If the goal is to confuse me to the point of frustration that I start not caring, consider this a win. But here I felt like an editor (or the author) was swinging for the convention-busting fences and ended up fouling the ball off behind first base and hitting an elderly lady in the face. With all of this complication, we lost sight of the elegance required to make mysteries work. Yes, there has to be complexity, but it’s almost internal to the story and the pace at which details here and there are meted out make or break the success of the mystery. This was a vomiting of all of these details and possibilities out all at once while simultaneously messing with the sense of identity of the reader. It created confusion and seemed beyond complicated, but there was no real meaningful pacing of the complexity. Why do I need to know all of this stuff? Who the eff is Anna? The order of operations were ignored: I’m always going to make sense of who I am as the participant in the story before I tackle anything else.

So when I got to the end, I was like okay, this explanation is gonna be a whopper. What I learned is that when you create that much confusion, no realistic explanation will ever live up to the build-up…so then, we went meta. Goddammit. No elegance.

Please Payoff On the Way Out

The second disappointment was the reveal of the total world in which we were nestled in this story. Again, no elegance. It wasn’t interesting or novel; it was outlandish, uninteresting, and also not explained very well. If you’re gonna drag me through this whole exercise that’s uber-complicated and detailed, as a mystery reader, I’m approaching this adventure with the given that it’s gonna payoff. You can’t flub the payoff. Turton flubbed the payoff: I left with questions remaining on the main reason for this whole exercise, the primary motivation of the “main” character (what is was) and when it was half-explained, I actually questioned it. The explanation for why this person I was in the book was doing what he was doing, frankly, sucked. And it was also kinda preachy. And the most likeable, potentially compassionate character in the whole thing (spoiler alert: not our guy) was left to possible suffer a terrible fate.

What. the. hell.

This is Why I Struggle Reading Fiction Today

To bring this all around, I think this exemplifies why I struggle to read fiction written today. I’m often feeling that instead of just writing a good, compelling story driven my interesting and relatable characters, authors are hellbent to be “unique” and push the genre, whatever it might be. Almost always this leads to messing with the structure, rather than driving genre innovation using the story. So we have a bunch of literary “tools” that we just see ad nauseum but with little purpose or intention.

Let’s run off the check-list of fiction structure-manipulation: Did we embody multiple characters to see a variety of viewpoints internally? Check. Did chapter titles make us think weird, confusing things? Check. Did we have partial or full opacity on the details of the setting so that we had to stumble about and learn things as we go? Check. Did we have disorienting or major shifts in timeline and/or the universe of the story? Check. Did we finally figure out who we were but didn’t like us? Check.

Now, that I’m listing these, I’m realizing the approach of this book is almost a dead ringer for Suzanna Clarke’s Piranesi but an inferior one, with murder.

Piranesi was so deftly constructed as a story, that the story grounded a lot of what we would learn about the world in which we were living and who Piranesi was and really was. That book felt like a genre-changer because while we were grounded in the character, we learned that everything you see isn’t what you think it is…and I was both heartbroken and joyous about it. It was elegant.

Turton, in the end, was just confused. And I really wanted to love it.

Authors I beg of you: please stop trying to win awards and write good stories. We all need that. Especially mystery writers…I know you’ve got it in there somewhere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.