The year is 1634, and the United East India Company is the wealthiest, and most powerful, trade company in the world. The most profitable spice route is between Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) and the Company headquarters in Amsterdam where the ruling board of the Company, the Gentlemen 17, place profit over all other considerations. This route takes eight months to cross and is perilous and arduous. In Batavia, the massive cargo-passenger ship Saardam is about to set sail for Amsterdam with a mysterious cargo, along with a cadre of nobles, middle-class passengers, soldiers, peasants, sailors, a priest, a prisoner, and a demon. Welcome aboard.
There are few genres I enjoy more than isolation horror and that goes doubly if the story takes place on, or in, the ocean. Taking a disparate cast of characters, turning up the tension, and watching them bounce off each other while trying to cope with a supernatural menace is my idea of a good time. Devil takes this as a starting point but adds the renowned and brilliant detective named Sammy Pipps into the mix to bring an element of Sherlock Holmes to the stew. Sammy, imprisoned on the ship for a crime he may or may not have committed, is accompanied by his assistant, and mercenary, Arent Hayes. Arent is determined to prove Sammy’s innocence, but neither knows what crime he is accused of. Aboard the ship with them are Batavia’s Governor General Jan Haan, his wife Sara, daughter Lia, and various members of his household. In the cargo hold lies a mysterious crate referred to only as The Folly. Before the ship leaves the harbor, a dire proclamation is made on the dock that all who sail on the Saardam are doomed. After setting sail it is clear that something has dark business aboard the Saardam, and with hundreds of passengers on board, there are plenty of victims to choose from.
This is the second novel from Stuart Turton and he has fast become one of my favorite authors. His debut, The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle was one of my favorite books I read in 2021 and a five-star book for me. That one mixed Groundhog Day, Quantum Leap, and Agatha Christie into literary dynamite that blew me away. I heartily recommend it to everyone. Turton’s sophomore book The Devil and the Dark Water is more straightforward than 7 1/2 Deaths but that’s only because it does not feature time travel and body swapping. What it does feature is memorable characters, a riveting story, and can’t-put-it-down momentum that goes from a whisper to a scream for the last quarter of the novel.
To write any more would be a disservice to the reader. If you are already intrigued by all means read the novel. The Devil and the Dark Water is a hell of a good time that only slightly stumbles in its final pages yet not enough to affect my hearty recommendation.