Book Review

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

An impossible murder

A remarkable detective duo

A demon who may or may not exist

It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported from the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam, where he is facing trial and execution for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent, while also on board are Sara Wessel, a noble woman with a secret, and her husband, the governor general of Batavia.

But no sooner is their ship out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A strange symbol appears on the sail. A dead leper stalks the decks. Livestock are slaughtered in the night. And then the passengers hear a terrible voice whispering to them in the darkness, promising them three unholy miracles. First: an impossible pursuit. Second: an impossible theft. Third: an impossible murder. Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?

With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent and Sara can solve a mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board.


The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is one of my favourite novels from recent years, and it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I picked up Turton’s follow up, The Devil and the Dark Water.

As with Seven Deaths, this is a novel that defies easy classification. It’s an adventure novel, taking place at sea on the journey from Batavia to Amsterdam and with all the usual challenges – and some that are rather less common – to be considered.  There’s a crime element as the mysterious goings on onboard raise questions with the crew and the passengers, bolstered by the presence of Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective.  There are also elements of the supernatural, with a leper stalking the ships who can’t possibly be alive, and whispers of a demon on the ship, tempting those aboard with dark bargains.  It works brilliantly, and the combination makes this an exciting and utterly unique novel that kept me gripped throughout. 

There are some great characters within the pages of this novel, but my favourite was Sara.  Trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage – and at a time when women have few rights or recourse – it’s difficult not to feel sorry for her.  But Sara is so much more than her circumstances.  She is intelligent and brave, and from the beginning proves willing to roll her sleeves up and get stuck in when required.  Her knowledge of healing comes in useful as events on the ship escalate, and she’s not one to sit by and let things happen, no matter how often the men aboard tell her that she should.

Deference was something she was supposed to put on every morning, along with her cap and bodice.

Sara’s primary concern – above her own welfare – is for her daughter, Lia, who from a very young age has displayed an extraordinary intelligence, bordering on genius.  With this not being a particularly sought-after quality in a young woman at the time, her life in Batavia was one of being locked away, and Sara fears for her future as she approaches a marriageable age.  This adds a wonderful edge to Sara’s character, as she seeks to protect her daughter at all costs, dreading that she’ll be used to her husband’s benefit, ending up trapped in a marriage like Sara’s own.

Arent Hayes is also a fantastic character, and I loved the twist on the classic detective narrative as Arent – very much sidekick to Samuel Pipps – is given the limelight and opportunity to shine as Pipps is being held prisoner aboard the ship for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious.  He’s and Pipps have worked together for some years, and while Pipps has given him the opportunity to lead in the past, Arent feels that his own skills don’t pass muster after a near miss in which he accused the wrong man of a crime years earlier, Pipps swooping in at the last minute to save the day.  Arent is a big man, and I think one that people take at face value – assuming him to be slow in all respects.  He quickly proves himself to be so much more – kind, generous, intelligent, I found him impossible not to like.  He and Sara work well together, and I enjoyed seeing their investigation progress.

I can’t say too much about the plot, but Sara and Arent begin to investigate the strange happenings aboard the Saadarm which begin even before they’ve set sail.  It’s as exciting and complex as I’ve come to expect from Turton.  I figured out a little of what was going on, but barely scraped the surface of the how and why, and this is a novel that has plenty of surprises to keep the reader engaged to the end.  If I had any slight issue with the novel – and this may well be more a reflection of my state of mind at the moment – it was keeping the huge cast of supporting characters straight.  There is a guide at the beginning as to who’s who which does help but remembering how each was involved became a little complicated as the novel progressed. 

The Devil and the Dark Water is published by Raven Books, an imprint of Bloomsbury, and is available to purchase now.

7 comments

    1. Thank you, Nicki! Yeah – there are a few to get to grips with, but it’s worth the effort. Hope you both enjoy it! ☺️

    1. Thank you! I would say give it a go – I thought that the story was more straightforward than Seven Deaths, and the only confusing element for me was around the number of characters and remembering who’s who!

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