Too little information and you’re blind, too much and you’re blinded.
I saw this book about 6 months ago when I was wasting time in an airport waiting for my flight. It looked interesting enough and just as I was about to buy it, my flight rang and I had to run. I did download it in ebook format and I’ve literally just finished it tonight.
It was a wild ride. Stuart Turton sent me on a wild murder-mystery hunt in a purely innovative novel which features the concept of prisoners, hosts, redemption and Groundhog day.
I found out only afterwards that this novel was the Winner of the Costa First Novel Award 2018.
At first, the set-up seems to be like something out of Agatha Christie – a country house party full of intriguing and unpleasant guests, buried secrets and mysteries, and, inevitably, a murder. But all of this set up is made more interesting by the fact the narrator has seen something traumatic in the woods and stumbled back into the party with no memories and no sense of his past or personality.
The people at the party are wealthy, sometimes mean, sometimes petty, always in search of a bit of gossip and looking to spread some new rumours.
Wealth is poisonous to the soul and my parents have been wealthy a very long time – as have most of the guests who will be at this party,’ says Evelyn. ‘Their manners are a mask, you’d do well to remember that.’
The main character, Aiden, is awoken in a new body every day and his sole purpose (as described by a guy in a Plague Doctor suit) is to find who kills Evelyn at the end of the night. The story repeats itself every day in the same manner, it’s only the hosts that Aiden wakes up in are different. He lives different lives and as the days move forward, he finds out he loses more and more of his personality.
His re-incarnations are multiple and at the end of each failed cycle, the Plague Doctor erases Aiden’s memory and he has to start over again. This time, he sets the starting host as Sebastian Bell, a doctor, who seems to as bland as pita bread but which carries a dark secret.
the truth isn’t always a kindness, but no man should discover himself this way, like an abandoned house stumbled upon in the darkness.
He as he learns about his “condition” and discovers the rules of the game he now needs to play, he decides that instead of solving the murder, he should prevent it instead, thus wasting 5 valuable hosts in the process.
Anger’s solid, it has weight. You can beat your fists against it. Pity’s a fog to become lost within.
As the days pass, he finds out he has a friend in Anna – a person similarly trapped in the loop with him, and an enemy in the form of a Footman whose only purpose is to relentlessly kill off his hosts once they are discovered. The only way that Aiden can fight him is to prepare a journal and make note of all the clues he can find and talk to as many of the guests as possible.
The future isn’t a warning my friend, it’s a promise, and it won’t be broken by us. That’s the nature of the trap we’re caught in.’
Anna is special either. It looks like the Plague Doctor is setting Aiden against her and wants her to “lose” the race.
‘I don’t have other hosts, it’s just me,’ she says. ‘No visits from a Plague Doctor, no other days neither. I won’t remember any of this tomorrow, which seems a bit of luck given how today’s going so far.’ ‘But you know what’s happening, you know about Evelyn’s suicide?’ ‘It’s murder, and I woke up knowing,’ she says, straightening my sheets. ‘Couldn’t remember my own name, but I knew yours and I knew there was no escaping until we took the killer’s name, and proof of their guilt, to the lake at 11 p.m. They’re like rules, I think. Words scraped onto my brain so I don’t forget.’
As the days approach and end and Aiden Bishop is struggling to find the murderer and prevent the fake suicide, thoughts on the nature of destiny and fate creep into the narrative, bringing it a metaphysical appearance. The Plague Doctor puts it bluntly that it’s due to his doggedness that he’s gotten so far.
‘Nothing that’s happening here is inevitable, much as it may appear otherwise. Events keep happening the same way day after day, because your fellow guests keep making the same decisions day after day. They decide to go hunting, they decide to betray each other; one of them drinks too much and skips breakfast, missing a meeting that would change his life forever. They cannot see another way, so they never change. You are different, Mr Bishop. Loop after loop, I’ve watched you react to moments of kindness and cruelty, random acts of chance. You make different decisions, and yet repeat the same mistakes at crucial junctures. It’s as though some part of you is perpetually pulled towards the pit.’
It’s only when Aiden inhibits the body of a police constable that the clues start to become apparent. Taking advantage of his host’s knowledge of murders, he realises that the fake suicide / murder is more than it seems and he suspects the closest members of the Hardcastle family of being involved.
Rashton’s worked on dozens of murders. They aren’t stage-managed, they’re immediate, impulsive acts. Men crawl into their cups after a hard day’s work, stirring the bitterness settled at the bottom. Fights break out, wives grow tired of their black eyes and pick up the nearest kitchen knife. Death happens in alleys and quiet rooms with doilies on the tables. Trees fall, people are crushed, tools slip. People die the way they’ve always died, quickly, impatiently or unluckily; not here, not in front of a hundred people in ball gowns and dinner jackets. What kind of mind makes theatre of murder?
As Aiden rushes to the Plague Doctor with the answer to the puzzle, he also asks for Anna to be released from the cycle alongside him. This is when we find out that the looping murder cycle is actually a prison.
‘This is a prison?’
‘Yes, except instead of leaving our prisoners to rot in a cell, we give them a chance to prove themselves worthy of release every single day. Do you see the beauty of it?’ The murder of Evelyn Hardcastle was never solved, and probably never would have been. By locking prisoners inside the murder, we give them a chance to atone for their own crimes by solving somebody else’s. It’s as much a service, as a punishment.’
As they discover another unlikely plot twist, the two of them escape and Aiden has time to meditate that without the individualities of his hosts, he could not have managed to solve the murder and escape.
Something unknown and unfathomable, something I can’t even imagine from inside the confines of Gold’s mind. After all, it’s not only Blackheath I’m escaping. It’s them. It’s Bell and the butler, Davies, Ravencourt, Dance and Derby. It’s Rashton and Gold. Blackheath was the prison, but they were the shackles.
Book was good, solid 4/5