Book review: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (spoilers)

It is finally summer and time to not only get outside, but also pull out our stacks of summer reads. I recommend The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. The title intrigued me more than anything else, and the blurb on the back was accurate, describing the mystery as a mix between Agatha Christie, Downton Abbey, Quantum Leap , and Groundhog Day. That being said, the story is better off if the reader really knows nothing about it or what’s going to happen. Spoilers are ahead.

This book is so awesome and fun I don’t know where to start. It’s a game, a mystery the main character, Aiden Bishop (a lot of chess references), has to solve, and we readers get to follow along with him. Bishop has 8 days to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle; however, it is the same day repeated 8 times, and each time he will inhabit a different body of guests that have come to Blackheath estate for a masquerade ball. The biggest difficulty for Bishop is that each time he wakes up, he has to fight off the personalities of these guests and try not to totally give into their way of thinking. He also doesn’t know who to trust–a murder mystery standard–but it’s amped up a bit here. By the end of the story, Bishop has chosen a route that very well may not be the right one. He, and we, have so little information about the larger picture going on, and it comes from characters who are likely untrustworthy.

Major spoilers. Bishop is told partway through the book, that this is all a punishment, a newfangled way of getting people to pay for their crimes by making them solve a similar murder to one they committed–over and over again until they get it right. Apparently Bishop has been through several cycles of this murder mystery, and each time, the order of “hosts,” or bodies he inhabits, is changed and tweaked to give him better and better possibilities of solving it. He does solve it, but only has the word of the “plague doctor” that he is free, and also that he entered this prison or experiment freely. Since everything is forgotten at the beginning of a new cycle, there is every possibility that Bishop will once again enter the maze the next day, which may be the same day, and the cycle will begin again. He also may be free and not supposed to be free, which is also intriguing. It’s not clear how far in the future this prison actually is or if it really is a prison.

One truth stands out, though, Bishop definitely is changed by the end of the 8 days, even though we know so little about the real him. For me, it was a bit sad that he was happy forgetting or throwing aside whoever he was before. To know or not to know? I think knowing is usually better, but then other days I think not. And I would want to know bad things about myself more than I would want to know bad things about someone I cared for. 7 1/2 Deaths is truly a mind boggler and a book I’ll probably read again and again. It would be fun to see it adapted to a TV series, but I have no idea how they would do it.

On a writing level, it is masterful, but depends largely on first person perspective. It’s amazing how intricately the days are worked out and in such a way as to make it seem like a year or more has gone by. Turton does not have us repeat everything 8 times. There are a variety of guests, each who do something different during the day. At first the setting seems limited, but Turton uses that advantage, filling the whole world up. Bishop wastes a lot of time thinking he can save and trying to save Evelyn, even though he’s told point blank not to do that. As he knows by now it’s some sort of game, it’s fascinating that he takes it so seriously, and as a reader that attitude seemed…at little too convenient. Nevertheless, it was an exciting read and much food for thought on making punishments fit the crime and the possibilities of rehabilitating people. It is still not for sure that what Bishop is experiencing is an actual prison. He could be in a purgatory, another world, a broken mind, and so on.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a speedy read that’s hard to put down. More than the murder mystery itself, you end up wanting to know what is going on? Why is Bishop there? Why does he have to do this for 8 days? What’s the reason, who’s behind it, so on and so forth. These larger questions are answered, if the characters who answer them can be believed, but that’s a big “if.” It is one of the few stories I’ve read that I started taking notes on as I read it. The party invitation at the beginning with a list of all the characters was super helpful, as was the map. The first person perspective really allows the reader to feel as if they are experiencing the game for themselves. This is one of the few minder bender stories that really live up to the hype. It did not disappoint.

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