Jan/Feb 2021  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Devil and the Dark Water

Review by Ann Skea

The Devil and the Dark Water.
Stuart Turton.
Raven Books. 2020. 555 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 8965.

The Devil and the Dark Water reminds me a little of the old circular joke:

"It was a dark and stormy night and the Captain said to the Mate, 'Tell us a story.' So the Mate began, 'It was a dark and stormy night and the Captain said to the Mate, 'Tell us a story.' So the Mate began, 'It was a dark and stormy night ...'"

Turton certainly tells a tall tale, in which there is a ship, a grisly crew, some terribly dark and stormy nights, and, since it is a mystery story in which the mysteries are finally resolved, it is, like any detective story, circular.

Had I relied on the blurb, which speaks of a loyal bodyguard, a noblewoman with a secret, a dead leper staking the decks, and "unholy miracles," I may never have chosen to read this book, but the note saying it is "a glorious mash-up of William Golding and Arthur Conan Doyle" hooked me in.

In a jokey afterword titled "An Apology to History, and Boats," Turton tells us he doesn't believe in assigning books to genres since "no two readers are the same, which means no two readings are the same." He is, he says, "a bit worried some people might describe this book as a 'boat book,' or a piece of historical fiction" simply because it is about a boat and is set in 1634. So, "Please don't send me critical letters about proper rigging techniques on galleons, or women's fashion in the 1600s," because this book is "historical fiction where history is the fiction."

It would, in any case, be almost impossible to fit the book into any genre other than that of good, fantastically unbelievable and very entertaining stories. Containing, as it does, a galleon, a murderous crew, lots of deaths and devilry, priceless treasures, and a cast of characters, all of whom have dark secrets, it is exactly the sort of gripping yarn you would tell on a ship's deck on a dark and stormy night.

The first "unholy miracle" brings Lieutenant Arent Hayes and noblewoman Sara Wessel together when they perform a compassionate task. As the passengers and crew are preparing to board the spice-ship Saardam to sail from Batavia to Amsterdam, a lame, tongue-less leper impossibly climbs onto a pile of crates on the quayside, cries out that the ship and all who sail in her are doomed, then is consumed by flames. Arent snatches up a cask of ale and douses the flames, Sara dashes from her carriage and administers numbing medicine to the dying leper, then Arent ends his impossible pain with a sword thrust to the heart. The mystery of the speaking, tongue-less, dead leper, who then re-appears on the ship throughout the book, is the first mystery. There are many more.

Arent is impressively tall and strong, and an experienced killer who has fought in many battles. He is boarding the ship as the hired, long-term protector of Samuel Pipps, a well-known solver of mysteries. Pipps is, for the moment, the prisoner of the Governor General of Batavia, Jan Haan, who is the husband of Sara Wessel. Sara, an independent, intelligent woman, who was married off to Jan Haan by her avaricious father, despises her husband, who beats her and who has imprisoned their teenage daughter, Lia, because she is "dangerously clever." Now, both she and her daughter have hopes of escape and freedom once the Saardam, which Haan has commissioned to carry them to Amsterdam, arrives there. Hann takes on board a huge, mysterious box, and a object called "The Folly," which few have been allowed to see but which he has orders to present to the powerful "Gentlemen 17" who own the Saardam and whose company runs spices from the Dutch East Indies to Holland. The Folly will, they believe, speed up the passage of their ships and make them the foremost traders on this route. Haan also plans to deliver Samuel Pipps to them, because Pipps has been accused of a treasonable offence and must be tried and executed for it. Arent does not believe in the charges.

There are a number of other well-drawn characters among the passengers and crew, and all are woven into the weird happenings plagueing the ship. Terrifyingly, beneath it all, and seemingly in control of everything that happens, is Old Tom, the devil who haunts the ship, whispering in the ears of everyone aboard:


The whisper caused her to freeze, her skin prickling.

"Who's there?" she demanded, blood thumping in her ears.

"Your heart's desire...for a price..."

—"What do you yearn for? Tell me and I'll depart."—"And what will you give for it?"—"Blood spilt and a bargain sealed..."—

Old Tom has a history of causing witch hunts, murder, and fear. His mark is an eye with a tail, and its appearance has always foretold terrible disaster and horror. Its power had first been demonstrated around the village in which Arent grew up:

Woodcutters noticed it first, etched in the trees they were felling. Then it began to appear in villages and, finally, carved into the bodies of dead rabbits and pigs. Wherever it happened some calamity followed. Crops were blighted, calves delivered stillborn. Children disappeared never to be seen again.

Everyone recognizes it as a mark of evil, and now it begins to appear on the Saardam, first on the mainsail as it is hoisted, then everywhere, carved on cargo in the darkness of the hold. Fear spreads, and the threat of mutiny grows. Arent, who seems to be one of the few honorable men on the ship, has had the mark of Old Tom etched into his wrist since he was a boy but does not know how it got there That mystery is just a minor puzzle in the growing tangle of intrigue, deception, evil and trickery needing to be resolved.

Stuart Turton is a good story-teller. When the mysteries were finally unravelled, I was disappointed—not so much by the implausible solutions, but by fact that the story had come to an end. It had all been good, easy reading and devilishly puzzling fun.


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