Sourcebooks Landmark, 480 pages, $26.99
I spent most of the book wondering if “The Devil and the Dark Water” was a supernatural thriller or a historical mystery. Stuart Turton provided many opportunities for vacillation. Mostly, it was a feel-the-salt-spray-in-your-face kind of book. It was “Master and Commander” on woo-woo mode.
The author says the book is set in 1634. The beginning is set in Batavia, Indonesia. (Turton freely admits that he was not totally faithful to the time period in technology or seafaring.) Batavia was the seed of what is now Jakarta, Indonesia. The Dutch East India Company colonized many areas in the Pacific, including Indonesia. The company made their riches from spices, especially those found in the Indonesian islands. (The fabled Spice Islands.)
Thankfully, Turton doesn’t slow down the narrative with any of that background. The reader is just plopped down in Batavia just as Jan Haan, the Governor General of Batavia, and his family are about to set sail back home to Amsterdam. He has been invited to appear before the Gentlemen 17, the administrators of the Dutch East India Company. Eight months, nine months at sea. Oh, yeah, that should be fun.
The reader is also dropped straight into an ongoing drama. Jan Haan had sent for the renowned detective, Sammy Pipps, to find Haan’s stolen “Folly.” (We don’t know what The Folly is for quite some time, so don’t obsess about it.) Sammy journeyed to Batavia with his hired bodyguard/assistant, Arent Hayes. Hayes is also Sammy’s Dr. Watson; he has chronicled Sammy’s adventures for the public. Like Sherlock Holmes, Sammy has topnotch observational skills and logic, so of course he finds The Folly. Unfortunately, when the book opens, Sammy is in chains and is being hauled aboard the ship, the Saardam, to be brought before a court back in Amsterdam on charges. No one except Haan knows what the charges are. Arent cannot help his boss and friend except to try to make his sudden incarceration less miserable.
I have to stop here and say this is a very difficult review to write. Many plot developments are surprising and the author drops them in periodically until the biggest surprise of all appears at the end. How much to tell you? How much to leave out? I’ll let you make the choice. Read no further if you want the book to be a complete surprise. I’ll tell you now the author toys with his audience, and I enjoyed it very much. It is worth being surprised. But if you insist on knowing more …
Actually, this first paragraph is not a spoiler, so it may throw off those who want to take a peek at my revelations — which, trust me, won’t amount to much. Most of the book takes place aboard the Saardam, so there is a lot of nautical to-ing and fro-ing, which I enjoyed. Turton delights in describing the horrible task of crewing a big ship or the ignominy of the passengers being herded like cattle. The dark, dank, dinky (alliteration, folks) quarters for the social betters are sumptuous compared to the foul-smelling, disease-infested passenger hold, which in turn is infinitely better than the gag-worthy, dangerous, rat-infested crew quarters, where murderers share space with thieves and other miscreants. Sammy is tossed into a tiny cupboard, without light, without amenities, without without without. Arent receives permission from Haan to visit Sammy and take him on deck for a little while at night.
The book opens with a scene on the dock, before the ship sails, when a leper appears before the travelers. He is atop some cargo containers and shouts down to the travelers:
Know that my master … sails aboard the Saardam. He is the lord of hidden things, all desperate and dark things. He offers this warning in accordance with the old laws. The Saardam’s cargo is sin, and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam.
He bursts into flames. After he dies, it is discovered he has no tongue. Ooooo.
During that first riveting scene, we meet the governor general’s wife, Sara Wessel, who says she is a healer. She and Arent try to help the leper, but he is beyond help.
After the ship gets underway with a strange cast of crew and passengers, the leper – Wait! Isn't he dead? – appears outside the porthole of Sara’s quarters. Burn marks are found on the hull leading from the sea to Sara’s window and continuing over to her husband’s chambers. Ooooo.
The consensus is that the leper’s master must be the mysterious Old Tom, a creature said to take people’s souls in exchange for their hearts’ desire. His sign is a circle with a tail, just like the sign that appears on the mainsail when it is unfurled. Just like the scar Arent has from a wound received during a mysterious event that occurred when he was a child.
There are seven ships in the fleet that sails to Amsterdam. Some are lost during a storm, but one, the ominous eighth ship, shows up just before something awful happens. Ooooo.
How can Sammy solve what is going on while he is locked up? What can Arent and Sara do before the crew goes mad, people start dying in bunches, and Governor General Haan loses his marbles? (P.S. Haan is an obnoxious bully, so we aren’t terribly upset that Old Tom is whispering at night to everyone aboard that whoever kills Haan can receive their heart’s desire.)
“The Devil in the Dark Water” is a tale bigger than the pages it is written on. Feel the salt spray and Old Tom’s claws reaching for your soul and the ship going up and down, up and down, up and down in the storm (urp). Smell the spices bursting from the torn sacks in the holds.
And, finally, the spoiler — sort of — learn why Haan and Arent already know each other.
Was that worth peeking down the page?