Writing is hard.
Even the writers who claim to just open a blank page and then start writing will begrudgingly agree with this.
There are writers who do tons and tons of research for months beforehand, while others go the opposite way and make up their own richly developed worlds where they get to decide the rules and history. There’s no research in that, but it’s just as hard – if not harder.
But it’s always been mystery writers who get my respect. Those who are able to write a compelling story around one simple question – whodunit?
As a – so far – unsuccessful writer, I know first hand how hard it is. I spent six years writing a novel, a murder mystery, carefully placing clues, highlighting them subtly to the reader but not drawing too much attention to them, drip feeding enough information that they could solve the problem, but not so much that it makes it easy.
I played around with my structure, my lead character couldn’t be everywhere at once, so things had to happen in certain orders. People had to let slip small pieces of information at opportune moments without it being too clichéd, too signposted.
I brought in flashbacks to help inform the reader, to keep it interesting, to give them the same information my lead was getting without pages and pages of exposition.
It was hard keeping every ball in the air and I STILL didn’t get published (apart from the pages on this very blog… what’s that you want a link? Oh, go on then, click here to start from the beginning). Imagine how hard a published writer would have had to work.
That – finally – brings me to this week’s book The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.
It is a typical Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery. Big old house in the country, a huge cast of characters. Deceit, betrayal, blackmail and of course, death.
How to solve the mystery, though? How to solve the problem of a character needing to be everywhere at once? How does one person do the job of a whole police force?
Here’s the clever bit – our main character, Aidan Bishop has woken up in the body of someone else, with no memory, either his or those of his host. He soon learns that upon falling asleep at the end of the day he will re-live the day again, this time in the body of someone else.
He will see the same day from eight different perspectives, and all he has to do to escape from this loop – he’s done the eight lives several times before – is solve the mystery of who killed Evelyn Hardcastle.
Think Quantum Leap meets Downton Abbey via Groundhog Day.
I love a murder mystery, and I cannot resist time travel, so this book had the perfect premise for me. I didn’t see the reveal coming, but in retrospect it all works which is one of the few things I ask for in a mystery.
On top of these elements, there was an interesting power struggle between Bishop, essentially a blank slate, and the pull of the personalities from his hosts. Each character he – and subsequently we – inhabited felt completely different, but familiar at the same time.
Lastly, the trap that some of these books fall into, perhaps one of the traps I fell into, is that of the cast of supporting characters. Too few and it’s obvious who-in-fact-dun-it, too many and it can overwhelm the reader.
Turton has a huge cast of characters, fifty plus have travelled to Blackheath for a party and that works in his favour. Our lead characters can claim not to know many of them, and therefore we get them drip-fed into our consciousness. On the flip side, enough of them are omnipresent to make it feel like we’re not completely detached from what has come before.
All in all – my favourite book of the year so far – and I’m incredibly jealous I didn’t have the idea.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is published by Raven Books on 8th February