A dead body is “a brilliant jumping-off point,” remarks British novelist Stuart Turton, speaking by phone from his home in Hertfordshire, England. “I can’t think of a more freeing starting point for a novel.”
Case in point is Turton’s second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water, which begins with both a body and a bang. As passengers board a trade ship in the Dutch East Indies in 1634, a person with leprosy wrapped in bloody bandages appears, curses the voyage and then bursts into flames. A demon named Old Tom may be responsible for this person’s death. To bring himself up to speed on such matters, Turton took an online course on demons. “If you’ve got a few hours,” he says, “they teach you how to identify and banish demons, which is just bizarre. I don’t believe in any of this, but it was fantastic.”
An unexpected layover back in 2003 led Turton to the inspiration for this gripping mystery. After missing a flight to Singapore, the author, who readily admits that he is “terrible at sticking to plans,” found himself stranded in Perth, Australia. To kill time, he visited a maritime museum, where he learned about the 1629 shipwreck of the Batavia. Years later, he decided to fictionalize the ship’s saga. The actual story is apparently so horrible that “it wouldn’t have been fun to read,” Turton says.
“I felt like I was my own little ship sailing in between these different lighthouses and trying to get my characters to safety . . .”
Before writing this book, he returned to Perth, visited Indonesia (where his fictional ship, the Saardam, leaves port) and studied records in the British Museum and the British Library. He scoured passenger manifests from the 1600s, borrowing names for many of his characters. “Research is my favorite part of writing,” he says. “It’s just an excuse to travel and go to great places.”
The Devil and the Dark Water is filled with realistic details about life aboard the Saardam, including characters who bathe with buckets of seawater and must lean overboard to go to the bathroom. When asked how people survived such miserable voyages, Turton curtly replies that they “mostly didn’t.” He is hardly married to the minutiae of history, however. “The moment it interferes with my plot, I throw it away,” he admits.
History isn’t the only thing this author gets rid of. Upon the publication of his blockbuster mystery The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018), he burned his notes in a backyard bonfire. An exquisite combination of Agatha Christie and Groundhog Day, Turton’s first book stars a detective who inhabits the bodies of eight different witnesses in an attempt to solve and prevent a murder. Editing Evelyn’s necessarily precise timeline nearly drove Turton mad, however, so the bonfire felt like a symbolic way to free himself to write something completely different.
Turton plotted his latest novel using a method he calls, appropriately enough, “lighthousing.” He explains: “I felt like I was my own little ship sailing in between these different lighthouses and trying to get my characters to safety at the end of the book. It sounds weird to say, but I almost left it up to them to find their way through.”
As for this book’s dead body, Turton created a trio of Dutch women to investigate. There’s “fiercely intelligent” Sara, who is planning to escape her greedy, abusive husband, Jan; her genius young daughter, Lia; and Creesjie, Jan’s mistress and Sara’s friend. Although Turton read about the daily lives of women at that time, he admits to taking some liberties. “I made mine totally Charlie’s Angels,” he says. “I wanted them having witty banter, being really engaging characters and not being meek and dour, constantly humiliated by the men in their lives.”
Also on board is a Sherlock Holmes-type detective named Samuel Pipps, who could quickly get to the bottom of these bizarre events if he weren’t imprisoned, being transported to Amsterdam to await execution for an unknown crime. That leaves Pipps’ detective work to his devoted bodyguard, Arent Hayes, a hulking figure with an enigmatic past.
Despite this Sherlockian setup, Turton says he’s not a huge fan of the beloved character. “The miracles of Holmes’ talents always seem to happen within the first two pages of the story; then he spends the next 15 pages never using those talents again.” Instead, Turton has been an Agatha Christie enthusiast since reading her work at age 8, when he realized that Christie’s books were board games to be played against the author. Turton wants his own readers to feel the same invitation. “All the clues are there in front of you,” he says. “Just get out a notepad and start making notes. This is something we should be enjoying together.”
How about Turton’s own detective skills? Has he ever tried an escape room?
No, he says with a laugh. “Everyone expects me to be great at Scrabble because I’m a writer. I’m terrible at Scrabble, and I think I’d be terrible at escape rooms. Pure pride has prevented me from going into one.”
Author photo by Charlotte Graham.