I first came across The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (or seven and a half if you’re in the US) not through a recommendation but rather an article on video game website Eurogamer of all places. The article focuses on a novel that, much like a video game, is as focused on the mechanics that underpin the world as the narrative that drives the protagonist forward. It highlighted a murder mystery in which the protagonist repeats the same day over and over again, a la Groundhog Day but witnesses the day’s events from a different ‘host’ each time. As the day resets, the hosts tick down one by one, like video game lives, until none are left. After reading this overarching synopsis and the relation to various games, many of which I’ve played, I was eager to read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle for myself and experience this unique combination of narrative and mechanics.
Our protagonist is Aiden Bishop, but that is not how he is introduced. We initially find Bishop inhabiting the body of a doctor named Sebastian Bell. Bell is part of a mixed group of upper class socialites and their staff at the Blackheath estate, a formerly reputable manor which has lost its glamour. The same holds true of its owners, the Hardcastle family. Despite their troubles, the Hardcastles are holding a large party to celebrate the return of their daughter Evelyn. Bishop, as Bell, gradually pieces this information together but his world is shattered again when Evelyn is killed at the end of the night and he wakes at the start of the day in the body of a different guest.
Aiden is then tasked with finding out the truth of what is happening at Blackheath by a figure dressed as a plague doctor. If he brings the name of Evelyn’s killer by the end of the day, then Aiden is allowed to leave. However, others at Blackheath are also looking to escape, and there’s a footman stalking the halls to ensure no one finds out the truth…
Stuart Turton, the author, has spoken about his desire to emulate Agatha Christie with a high society murder mystery, and his novel certainly has the elements that make Christie’s most well known stories shine. There’s the sprawling manor, the family with a hidden secret, the shocking twists and turns that the narrative spins. It’s all here, but there’s also the major element that helps set The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle apart; its Groundhog Day style repetition of the day’s events.
This might sound like a gimmick when looking over the blurb, but Aiden’s long day helps to create unique and interesting scenarios. Early on, Aiden finds a note which tells him that he’s left his gloves too close to the fire. Sure enough, he turns around and finds them smouldering. It’s only later in the story that we find the one who left the note was Aiden himself, using the knowledge he gained in the first outing to warn himself, establishing a closed loop in the process. This is just a small example of the complex scenarios that play out as a result of the repeated day and ‘lives’ that Aiden possesses. Clues are found and events seen from a different angle that help piece together the truth behind the mystery. It’s an intriguing and unique set up that helps the novel stand out in the crowded mystery genre.
However, this focus on rules and mechanics underpinning the narrative can make things convoluted as well. It can be difficult to keep track of who is due to appear when in the novel, or who is aware of Aiden’s identity when he is swapping between hosts. One character who assists Aiden is Anna. She routinely speaks with Aiden while he is in different guises. Because he interacts with her at different times throughout the novel, it’s often difficult to work out exactly how much she is aware of, sometimes informing Aiden of what’s happening but also sometimes having very little knowledge of what is occurring herself. This reflects the jumbled timeline of the novel, but it can also make for a confusing read at times. The fact that some characters will only feature in one or two timelines due to their connection with the host Aiden is inhabiting makes it difficult to keep track of who’s who as well.
The primary focus of the novel is to tell a good mystery though and The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle does this with good world-building. One of the most understated elements of the novel is how the Blackheath estate has echos of the grand manors of other mysteries, yet is shown in clear decay as well. Walls are crumbling, the garden is overgrown and the guests are clearly unhappy there. It creates an abrasive atmosphere that runs throughout the novel. We can understand why people are obliged to court the Hardcastles, even while recognising their gradual fall in high society. There’s a hard to describe ‘wrongness’ about that the place that sets it up well as both a murder scene and a looping prison. The author deserves credit for how memorable a location Bleackheath is.
So while The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle succeeds in establishing the unique mechanics of a time twisting adventure, does it manage to create a successful murder mystery? I’d say yes, for the most part. While the narrative can be sometimes cluttered as a result of the book’s core concept, the unorthodox approach helps to create some satisfying puzzles and conundrums that can only be created in this way. If you’re a fan of a mystery but want a new take on the genre, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is one to try out.