The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be major spoilers. If you loved Evelyn Hardcastle and are looking for validation on your taste in books, maybe skip this post.
Well I’m glad I didn’t spend money on that. I originally saw this at Barnes & Noble and was tempted, but ultimately was unimpressed with the writing and ended up borrowing the book from the library, which turned out to be the right decision. The starry-eyed reviewers who claim they wish they had written the book themselves may do so without any conflicting wishes from me. I will go back to wishing I had written Gideon the Ninth.
But I digress.
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a quasi-historical mystery/thriller starring Aiden Bishop, a man who has eight days to figure out a nearly unsolvable cold case. Every day English heiress Evelyn Hardcastle is murdered at her own engagement party at Blackheath Manor, and every day Aiden inhabits the body of a different guest (referred to as a “host”), which both helps and hinders him as he works to unmask Evelyn’s murderer. Though the hosts represent different days to Aiden, in reality they are layered on top of each other, with the result that he inhabits all of them concurrently but is only able to control one at a time. During the course of his work he is assisted by a woman named Anna, who is in more or less the same predicament, and stalked by a murderous footman bent on killing all of his hosts before he can solve the case. If he fails, he wakes up in his first host with no memory of his previous attempts, save for one word that he brings with him to his new investigation, and the cycle starts all over again. Through it all, he is sporadically visited by a man dressed as a plague doctor, who is capable of rearranging Aiden’s personal timeline to suit his own purposes. It’s basically Clue with a Dungeon Master. I have no idea how anyone could go wrong with a premise like that, but somehow it did go wrong.
I might be more forgiving if the book were better written, but Turton is not a good writer. He writes the way I used to write ten-odd years ago, and that’s not good. Maybe I’m just being petty, because this is not a flattering mirror, but all the same it bugs me. Gerunds and dangling modifiers are the order of the day, and, combined with the turgid plot, they add up to a smoldering, exhausting trainwreck of a book. It kept me busy for a couple of days, but, now that I know what happens, it has no reread value. While this is a problem I have with mystery/thrillers in general, it is particularly applicable here, because I have no interest in going back to see if I missed anything. I am perfectly content to take it on faith that I did.
In a way I almost feel bad for this book, because it wants so much to be brilliant but the best it can manage is bland and overcomplicated. It’s not even clever, though I can’t say it isn’t trying. Despite the plot twists and the rivers of blood produced by the footman, it’s shockingly boring. Aiden is the most irritating protagonist I’ve encountered this year. Having woken up to a murder mystery upon whose resolution his freedom depends, he immediately decides that he doesn’t believe in any of that crap and instead becomes obsessed with locating and saving Anna, whose name is the only thing he can remember from the last cycle. He also decides that he can save Evelyn, and he wastes several days, hosts, and chapters alternately searching for Anna, trying to save Evelyn from an all but inevitable death, and rebelling against the cruel fates (or just the one Plague Doctor) who insist that he really does have to solve the mystery if he ever wants to be free. Anna, meanwhile, is trying to keep Aiden’s hosts alive while dodging the footman, and his bumbling search for her reaches such a pitch that she has to directly tell him to cut it the fuck out before he gets her killed. Clearly he’s meant to be a forceful, independent thinker, but the word I would actually use is “tiresome.”
And, ultimately, the nature of the story works against the book as a whole. Aiden has almost zero personality traits, aside from his utter inability to listen to basic directions (e.g., “Solve this mystery unless you want to be trapped here for another eight days”). This is intentional, as his own personality and abilities are overshadowed by those of his hosts, but this leaves us with a protagonist we don’t know, and I have no idea why I should root for him. Though it is eventually explained that he ended up in this neverending mystery cycle after the murder of his younger sister, her existence is revealed too late in the game, and it feels like an afterthought. It would have been better if the sister had been introduced early on, perhaps as a lingering phantom in the corners of Aiden’s mind, with her fate revealed later in the book; but, since the story sprang her on me out of nowhere, I never got attached. As a secret motive, she’s not exactly convincing.
I suppose the book’s one redeeming grace might be Anna, who is a much more interesting character than Aiden, but then it goes and reveals that Anna is in fact a notorious terrorist and the murderer of Aiden’s sister, so there goes any sympathy I might’ve had for her. Aiden and Anna, it turns out, are trapped in an elaborate prison system, under which convicted criminals are forced to solve outstanding cold cases for the purposes of rehabilitation and redemption. I’m not really sure how solving a centuries-old murder is supposed to rehabilitate anyone, but I don’t make the rules. Anna was imprisoned because, well, she’s a terrorist; Aiden entered the prison voluntarily, and has spent the last thirty years chasing and tormenting Anna. Lately, though, his memory has faded, and he no longer remembers who either he or Anna was or how he got into the prison in the first place, or even that it is, in fact, a prison. Over time they’ve banded together against Daniel Coleridge, another trapped convict, and their enmity has grown into camaraderie and friendship and possibly romance, which would be sweet if Anna weren’t a fucking murderer.
If the book had kept its nose out of terrorist rehabilitation, it might’ve been fine. I could have applauded it if it had been about the need to rehabilitate people charged with minor offenses, such as drug possession or shoplifting. Even better if it had been about correcting the systemic injustices of the American prison system. But Anna in her pre-prison life ran a terrorist ring. Her exact crimes are never spelled out, but they included, at a minimum, the kidnapping of Aiden’s sister, and her subsequent torture and murder, which were broadcast to the entire world. I don’t care if Anna is, as Aiden insists, a different person from the one who was originally incarcerated. I don’t care about the circumstances that led her to become a terrorist, which, incidentally, are never mentioned. She’s still a murderer. She can solve the mystery as many times as she likes, but it won’t erase even a second of what she did. Turton’s overall message is that people can change, which is true up to a point, but his good intentions got badly muddled by his apparent need to force his readers to forgive an unrepentant former terrorist.
I can accept stilted writing and an overly convoluted plot as standard genre fare, but this is a bridge too far. I do not forgive Anna. Amnesia is not the same as repentance, and, if Anna has ever regretted her past actions, we the readers have not actually seen her do so. Her memories of her past life are long gone by the beginning of the story, and she is later given the option of returning to the real world without them. This is not okay. Whatever she may have been through during her time at Blackheath, the opportunity to live peacefully and guiltlessly is a grace she doesn’t deserve. The families of her victims – aside, of course, from Aiden – have almost certainly not been offered the chance to start over, so I don’t see why she should be either.
The Actual Death of Evelyn Hardcastle
WARNING: I am going to reveal the ending. If you already feel spoiled enough and don’t want to be spoiled anymore, read no further. I normally don’t reveal endings for mystery reviews, but in this case I’m breaking my own rule because I need to talk about this.
All good? Let’s move on.
Me: Did you finish Evelyn Hardcastle?
Me: What did you think of the ending?
Mom: I’m glad it’s over.
mmmyep that pretty much sums it up.
When all is said and all is done, Evelyn Hardcastle isn’t actually Evelyn Hardcastle. She’s a conwoman named Felicity Maddox, who is posing as Evelyn Hardcastle while the real Evelyn Hardcastle is posing as French maid Madeline Aubert. This is what I mean when I say the book is trying too hard to be clever. After murdering her parents (and a decade or so after she murdered her youngest brother for no adequately explored reason), the real Evelyn attempts to escape Blackheath, but is shot dead by Felicity. This was not a part of the original case: the Plague Doctor felt that the real Evelyn deserved death and sent Felicity after her, which makes no damn sense at all. And after all that, we don’t even get the courtesy of a decent explanation because there is no explanation, unless you’re ready to accept that Evelyn is a psychopath. That’s just the way she is. Smile and nod, because that is all the explanation we are going to get. I suppose she gets what she deserves in the end.
Deserved or not, this all feeds into a larger question I have: how exactly does Blackheath work? It would be reasonable to assume it’s a simulation, but the weapons apparently are real and the rehabilitation assessors (the Plague Doctor and his colleagues, who also dress as plague doctors) can be hurt by them, which seems like a pretty stupid way to be running things. If this is the case, why would the prison designers put real weapons in the hands of convicted criminals? And how do all the other characters – Felicity, the Hardcastles, and all the rest – still behave exactly the way they would have during the real murder of Evelyn Hardcastle?
If we accept that the Plague Doctor is telling the literal truth – that is, that he and his colleagues do not know the answer to the mystery and are relying on Aiden, Anna, or Daniel to solve it – we can rule out the possibility of a simulation, because whoever created the simulation would have had the answer in advance. Aiden and Anna could not have stumbled upon a solution that hadn’t been programmed into the simulation. Does that mean, then, that Aiden and Anna and Daniel were actually sent back in time to the real Blackheath? Is their technology capable of inserting them into this case as it’s happening, and then of restarting it over and over again every time they fail? If so, that would account for the fact that the weapons are real and all the other characters run true to form, up to and including the real Evelyn’s death, which none of the assessors were expecting.
But then how would the Plague Doctor be able to rearrange the timeline to his liking, and how would he be able to influence the outcome of the case? Did the prisons of the future go back in time and trap all of their rehabilitation sites in a permanent time loop? What happens if and when that time loop is removed? Does history change, or will everything happen exactly the way it already did? If Aiden had succeeded in saving Evelyn, would it have made any difference at all? Or is Blackheath a hybrid, a combination of a simulation and a time loop? Did the prison designers have some means of replicating it exactly as it was, down to the details they never saw themselves? Was it a matter of building from scratch, or was it merely a matter of copying files? Why, in a book that is supposed to be clever, were none of these questions ever mentioned? And if I stick my fingers through the plot, will the holes be big enough to admit a criminal or two or three?
Ultimately, I know, the book is not about the shakily designed criminal rehabilitation system. It’s not about the technology that made the murder mystery loop possible, or about the exact motivations of Evelyn Hardcastle, or even really about her seven and a half deaths. Its ambitions encompass much more than just the one murder, though its reach far exceeds its grasp. It tries to take on forgiveness and redemption and criminal justice reform, but mostly comes across as preachy and misguided. It wants to be so much more than it is, and, really, I can’t fault it for that. It’s just that it could have been done so much better.