There’s no fear of ‘second album syndrome’ with this novel. Turton continues to prove that he is a fabulous storyteller with a genuine imaginative flair. The Devil and the Dark Water is a delightful read, retaining the magical genre bending thrills that made The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle so entertaining but this story is set half a world and several centuries away from his much lauded debut. This is an epic, a chunky escapist adventure set on the high seas with a wonderful cast of characters and a plot that captivates and beguiles.
- This is the day that Jan Haan begins his journey home from Batavia, (modern day Jakarta). In Amsterdam he will take up a place among the Gentlemen Seventeen, the directors of VOC, the United East India Company – the most powerful enterprise in the world, (think Amazon and Microsoft combined). His time as Governor General in the capital of the Dutch East Indies is over. In his thirteen years here Haan has turned a village into a thriving city, the beating heart of a trading leviathan. The journey home will take eight months, if…big if…if the ship makes it half way round the world to Holland.
As the Governor General’s procession makes it way through Batavia to the port, under guard and in manacles at the rear is Sammy Pipps, the famous detective now fallen from grace. Pipps’ bodyguard, Arent Hayes, has stuck with him since his arrest, he tries to shield his employer from the rocks thrown by a baiting crowd. Eventually they make it inside the port gates but the brief respite is shattered by the appearance of a leper atop a pile of crates hurling abuse at the assembled party. The man declares the Saardam, the vessel they are all about to board, doomed – it’s cargo is sinful and the voyage is cursed. Before their eyes the man appears to spontaneously combust, falling from his perch to the quay. Arent and Lady Sara, the Governor General’s wife, attend the dying man, they notices he has no tongue. When Arent reports this to Sammy, the detective realises the ship is in grave danger. The leper could not have uttered the threats, someone set him up to do it. Sammy fears sabotage awaits the voyage but he no longer has the Governor General’s ear and so he convinces Sara to talk to her husband. Haan will not listen, he is set on leaving and will brook no dissent. Haan is impatient to get his secret cargo ‘The Folly’ home to Amsterdam and claim his place among the noble directors. It was the recovery of this very Folly that somehow led to Sammy’s downfall, he being taken in chains to be delivered for trial and execution. His crime? Haan cannot even bring himself to share with anyone. For secrecy’s sake The Folly is stored in the armoury under guard. Sammy fears that the armoury is where the saboteur will strike, an explosion is the easiest way to sink the ship. Sammy is delivered to the darkest, dankest hole in the ship for the journey. Arent tries to plead for Sammy with Haan but the Governor General is having none of it. Haan chillingly points out to Arent that if he didn’t owe him his life, he too would be incarcerated awaiting the same fate as Sammy. Still he won’t tell Arent what Sammy has done but it is so heinous there can be no forgiveness. Arent doesn’t believe Sammy can be guilty of something too terrible to mention but cannot fight the unknown allegation. Sara discovers that the leper, Bosey, previously served on the Saardam, it was here that his tongue was cut out. When the ship gets under way and the main sail unfolds, the graffiti image of an eye with a tail is revealed, the same image as on Arent’s wrist, a tattoo he got as a child which he has no memory of. It is the symbol of Old Tom, are their enemies mortal or is something more sinister aboard the vessel? The Devil himself? The investigation falls to Arent and to Lady Sara as Sammy’s incarceration means he is only allowed out of his cell at midnight when everyone else is abed.
Everyone has a secret, some darker than others; autocratic Haan, his independent wife Sara, Lia, their precocious daughter forced to hide her intelligence to please the dull male perception of women, the venal merchant Reynier van Schooten, the Governor General’s mistress Creesjie, Sander Kers and his ward Isabel and their book of spells, proud guard captain Jacobi Drecht and a motley crew of misfits, thugs. The adventure is about to begin.
The Devil and the Dark Water is a rambunctious affair that involves the occult, superstition, a ship wreck, revenge served as a cold dish, mutiny, an atrocity, the possibility of atonement, convenient alliances and a revisiting of the sins of the past. All imagined from the true story of a ship wreck given a fantastical rebirth. Arent and Pipps are forerunners of Watson and Holmes; there’s plenty of clever detective work, sleight of hand, clues and red herrings – you may think you know what is going on but…
Raven books, Bloomsbury, ISBN 9781408889640, hardback, 1/10/20
Review by Paul Burke