I love to read, but I also really love getting enough sleep, and I’m generally pretty good at not staying up too late because of reading (for other reasons, sometimes!) The last time I can distinctly remember staying up later than I intended because I wanted to continue a book was Jane Eyre, 5+ years ago. Until last week, when I couldn’t bring myself to stop reading The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. I can’t say that it will join my list of absolute top favorites, as Jane Eyre did, but it’s a probable winner for this year’s “hardest book to put down”!
Trying to explain the plot is…challenging. It’s sort of Groundhog Day meets Every Day meets The Mouse-trap, with some scenes directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho-era. And despite that, it’s all stunningly original! Our protagonist, who we learn some way in is named Adrian, is living the same day over and over, but inhabiting a different body each time. He’s trapped at Blackheath, a crumbling manor house filled up by the devious guests of a grim house party, repeating the same day until he can solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, who dies at 11 pm. He will live through the day eight times, in eight different bodies; if he doesn’t have an answer by the end of the eighth day, his memory is wiped and it all begins again.
On one level, Adrian lives eight days – but on another level, it’s all one day, and he frequently encounters himself in another body, that other self living a different day. Not sure that made any sense, but…it’s fascinating! And surprisingly easier to follow than you might think. This is an incredibly complex book, with so many, many threads, and yet I felt like I followed it all very clearly. It must have been extremely carefully crafted, because somehow it all worked. Mysteries on Day Three are explained on Day Five, and the actions taken on Day Six impact Day Two, and we get a different perspective on an event on Day Seven that completely overturns how we thought something happened on Day One, without changing it, just explaining it differently. And so on, and so on. I never caught Turton in a contradiction or inconsistency, which is pretty amazing, considering.
It’s not just that there’s an incredibly complicated structure going on here – it’s a convoluted mystery Adrian is trying to unravel, with Evelyn Hardcastle’s death only one of many, many mysteries in the house. Every time he seems to be coming close to an answer, another twist is revealed. I couldn’t put the book down because I had to know how it would finally all be explained!
It was plot and premise that mostly drove this book for me, but the characters were interesting too. Adrian was a fine protagonist, and he has some interesting character exploration as he tries to understand who he is (lacking any memory of his time before Blackheath), and who each of his hosts are – each one, to a differing degree, impacts who Adrian is while he inhabits their bodies. In a way, that made the character development into another mysterious puzzle.
This is a grim book, in some ways grimmer than I usually read. Adrian is being stalked throughout by a footman determined to kill him before he solves the mystery, and there’s a fair bit in here about creeping shadows and stabbings. There are also some chilling twists near the end. Nothing is horrifically graphic, but there are some very dark concepts raised. It’s also a grim book in the sense that very few of the characters seem to be nice, likable or even happy people. Adrian seems likable enough, but most of his hosts and the people they meet are dominated by their vices and their dark secrets. Host #7 is possibly the first really good and happy person, and it’s a bit of a relief at that point.
So the real danger in such a complex mystery is whether the final answer will be enough after all the build-up. I’d have to say I found the conclusion both unexpected and satisfying. Probably even worth staying up late for!