The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton
Some people like to say, “I don’t read fiction” in the same way that a certain type of person likes to say, “I don’t watch T.V.” (Actually, more often than not, the I-don’t-watch-TV people are being deliberately disingenuous or are a little bit deluded, because you’ll find they actually do have a stash of box sets in their spare room or a Netflix subscription but, you know, it’s not TV… but that is probably a rant for another time.) Both of these statements are pretentious and supposed to imply that the person uttering them doesn’t have the time to waste on such unworthy pursuits. These mediums aren’t intellectual enough, they provide nothing of value.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to live inside the kind of brain that can’t see the value in reading fiction. And I guess that is kind of the point of this post.
Fiction, especially in writing, is an essential way of building empathy. Empathy as in understanding, not just sympathising with others, but really understanding that there are other perspectives out there, other ways of thinking and understanding the world. When you’re reading, you can be right up close to a character, see what they see, feel what they feel, hear their thoughts and be privy to their motivations. You may not like them any better for it, but you may understand them. You might begin to understand that not everyone has the same experiences, and even if they did, they process them in a different way. What makes one person stronger might completely destroy another.
In The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton has taken an entertaining romp of a classic whodunnit and woven into it an interesting demonstration of how everyone has their different strengths and weaknesses and looking at them from the outside, you just can’t know what obstacles people are working to overcome.
If you’ve heard of this book, you probably already know the premise: the setting, one of those glorious old grand house parties à la Agatha Christie; the protagonist, Aidan Bishop who keeps reliving the same party over and over until he solves the mystery of who killed Evelyn Hardcastle. The trick is, each time he relives the day, it’s from within the body of a different party guest.
What I love about this device is that Aidan is not simply a puppet master, moving around in an uninhabited body much as he would use his own. He feels each person’s feelings, inherits their strengths and weaknesses both physical, intellectual, and emotional. This leads him to feel more fear than he himself usually would, he experiences the unstable hunger of another guest, and has to control the quick temper of yet another lest it interfere with the success of his quest. He realises that instead of fighting against these characters, he needs to work with them and leverage the unique strengths each one has in order to get the job done. He also understands how some tasks are more difficult for some people than others.
I blink at her, struggling to stitch together a day being delivered in the wrong order. Not for the first time, I find myself wishing for the speed of Ravenscourt’s mind. Working within the confines of Jonathan Derby’s intellect is like stirring croutons into a thick soup.
We walk slowly, the valet tossing news at my feet, but my mind is fixed on the ponderousness of this body I’m dragging forward. It’s as though some fiend has remade the house overnight, stretching the rooms and thickening the air. Wading into the sudden brightness of the entrance hall, I’m surprised to discover how steep the staircase now appears. The steps I sprinted down as Donald Davies would require climbing equipment to surmount this morning.
I have to admit here that I have never read an Agatha Christie novel, but the setting and the mystery part of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle are just how I imagine an Agatha Christie mystery to be. I was so intrigued by the solution at the end that I immediately started to re-read the book to experience it all again, armed with my new knowledge.
I can’t imagine the giant whiteboard Turton must have used to map out the plot of this book – as well as playing around with perspective, the timeline jumps forward and back as each of these characters is experienced by Aidan Bishop non-sequentially. It really kept me on my toes.
So next time someone says to you, “I don’t read fiction,” maybe you should tell them how many windows into understanding that they’re missing out on.
Not to mention, they’re missing out on a whole lot of fun.