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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Nothing like a mask to reveal somebody’s true nature.

This 2018 novel by Stuart Turton is a modern sci-fi thriller wrapped in a classical locked-room mystery, and concerns the misadventures of a person experiencing a major identity crisis. Needless to say, it was a book after my own heart.

Minor Spoilers

Our setting: Blackheath Manor, somewhere in the English countryside, sometime in the 1930s. It’s a gothic, dreary and rain-soaked place, occupied by the estranged Hardcastle family: parents Peter and Helena, son Michael, daughter Evelyn. They are putting on a party and have invited a collection of their stuffy aristocrat friends. And in this house, no one is who they appear to be. Least of all, the story’s protagonist.

Our protagonist: a man who finds himself standing in the rain on the Blackheath grounds, having no idea who he is or how he got there. He becomes conscious as he’s in the middle of calling out a woman’s name. The man finds his way back to Blackheath, where he’s identified as Sebastian Bell. However, it quickly becomes apparent that he is not Bell. Nor is he Roger Collins, the man he becomes after Bell goes to sleep and wakes up the next morning… which is really the same day as before. Only from another point of view, in the most literal sense.

With the help of a mysterious maid named Anna and an even more enigmatic stranger in a plague doctor costume, our hero learns that his real name is Aiden Bishop and he is trapped in a bizarre prison. The key to his escape: find out who murders Evelyn Hardcastle at Blackheath. He has eight chances, eight different party guests to possess for eight different versions of the same day. He will have to sift through the sordid web of intrigue that connects the Hardcastles and their various associates, while also trying to figure out the greater mystery behind his presence there, as well as that of Anna and the Plague Doctor. At the same time, he fights mental battles against the thoughts and instincts of the men he inhabits, struggling to make use of their identities without losing his intangible true self to any of them. This is all made worse by the intrusion of a murderous footman who seems to know his every move.

I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to follow along with this book once it started. However, I found I was delightfully taken with the plot by the time Aiden Bishop possesses his second “host.” Once it gets going, the book moves quickly. Stuart Turton succeeds at making the mystery as tantalizing (and confounding) for the reader as it is for his hero of many faces.

The way the book toys with the concept of POV storytelling through the body-hopping plot device is pretty remarkable. You have to reorient yourself a bit with each chapter, putting us right alongside Aiden every time he wakes up in a new host. While Aiden spends most of his time unknown even to himself, he is centered by certain values and motives he can’t quite explain but which shine through the personalities of his hosts. How he goes from struggling against their conflicting natures, to learning how he can steer them to reach his goals.

And it gets really enjoyable once you start to understand how and when his different loops overlap. Like the image slowly coming together in a puzzle.

There’s also a very intriguing extra layer to the story that is only really hinted at, but is thought-provoking nonetheless. And that’s mainly where the science fiction lies, aside from the aforementioned body-surfing. Blackheath is a prison, and the punishment is trying to solve Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder. There’s a hint of unreality to the setting and the situation temporally displaced people like Aiden and Anna are locked into. How exactly it all works is pretty vague… up to a point.

However, the novel also explores relevant themes. The number one being a personal favorite of mine: identity. Aiden has to slowly piece together his actual self while dealing with the minds of his hosts at the same time; it muddles things, as one might expect. At times, he wonders how much of his “real self” is true and not just informed by someone else from a previous loop. Then there’s the question of who Anna really is or why she only inhabits one body instead of eight. And can she be trusted? Even putting the “prisoners” aside, nearly every named character — or unnamed, in the case of the plague doctor — at Blackheath has some hidden agenda, or a subterfuge that obscures their true nature.

Speaking of prisoners, the author also toys with that concept a bit. Aiden becomes aware that he’s a prisoner, but he can’t remember what it is he was imprisoned for. Meanwhile, his and Anna’s (shall we say, metaphysical) imprisonment is reflected by the blue-blooded Hardcastles and their associates, who are unknowingly trapped within their sequestered moment in time if not by their own poisonous machinations.

And without getting into too much else, it also turned out to be a surprisingly moving, even somewhat romantic story of justice, redemption and self-determination. Stuart Turton writes in a style that sounds classical but still has distinct contemporary sensibilities. It adds to the timeless quality of the book's plot.


* The plot is something like Gosford Park combined with Source Code. Or Downton Abbey meets Dark, for those who are more into TV; the narrative loop and shifting identity elements also reminded me of Westworld.

* Netflix was planning to adapt the book as a miniseries, but I think that got put on the back-burner after the recent WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes. That's a shame, because I think an adaptation would be great, if done the right way.

* In the United States, the book is titled “The Seven and 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.” Apparently, this is because it sounded too close to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

* So far, Stuart Turton has written two novels, and this one's the first. I plan on reading his next one, titled The Devil and the Dark Water. Just from the first few pages, it seems like even more of a high concept.

Quotes and Other Excerpts:

How lost do you have to be to let the devil lead you home? This lost. Precisely, this lost.

“The future isn’t a warning, my friend. It’s a promise. That is the nature of the trap we are in.”

“Some men walk in dark places the rest of us shouldn’t tread.”

“Give a little boy a train set and he will immediately try to derail it. The act does not speak to his character, nor do we judge him for it.”

Too little information, and you're blind. Too much, and you're blinded.

Memories are stirring slowly, and so far away that I feel like a man reaching across a river to trap a butterfly between his fingers.

After the sun’s early foray, it’s abandoned us to the gloom, the sky a muddle of grays. I searched the flowerbeds for splashes of red, hints of purple, pink or white. I searched for the brighter world behind this one, imagining Blackheath alight, wearing a crown of flames and a cape of fire. I see the gray sky burning, black ash falling like snow. I imagine the world remade, if only for an instant.

This book was an enjoyable mind-bender, clever and engaging. Five out of five timeless gothic mansions.


  1. I really enjoyed the book and quite liked the ending as well!

  2. This novel sounds intriguing. Thanks, Logan.

    I actually picked up The Seven Husbands of Eleanor Hugo and didn't like it enough to read more than a chapter. And for a moment, I thought it was what you were reviewing. So maybe the name change didn't help that much.

  3. This sounds fascinating and exactly like the kind of book I would enjoy. Definitely going to need to get it.

  4. Loved this book. Felt like a mix of Agatha Christie and Quantum Leap...Which is to say, exactly to my taste. I read The Devil and The Dark Water as well, and while I preferred this one because the time looping/murder mystery very much appeals to me, that book was also very enjoyable.


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