'The Devil and the Dark Water': How Stuart Turton's latest murder-mystery was inspired by a ghoulish shipwreck

The author says his time as a travel journalist in Dubai informed him how he could move his characters around and what that meant

2AR0HA7 Portrait of Stuart Turton 19/09/2019 ©Basso CANNARSA/Opale. Alamy
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Sometimes, inspiration can strike, and stick, in the strangest of places. Back in 2003, English novelist Stuart Turton was kicking around Australia's west coast, pondering whether to continue his travels to Asia. He found himself in Perth's Maritime Museum, ghoulishly entranced by the story of the Batavia, a merchant vessel wrecked on a nearby coral island in the 1600s. Of the 341 passengers, 40 drowned as they attempted to swim to land, and another 125 died – not due to malnutrition, but because they started killing each other.

“It’s a brutal tale,” says Turton with a nervous giggle. “I could not have written that story – it’s too horrible.”

So, the murder of castaways was too much, even for an award-winning author of books featuring strange murders?

“I write about happy death,” he protests. “Well, fun, pacy murder-mysteries, at least. But the idea of a haunted house at sea in the 17th century – that did seem something worth pursuing.”

It took 17 years, but The Devil and the Dark Water has eventually been released. And the book is quite the adventure.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton. Courtesy Bloomsbury
'The Devil and the Dark Water' by Stuart Turton. Bloomsbury

The Dutch East India Company has called the governor general of Batavia (present day Jakarta) back to Amsterdam. He brings his wife, Sara, and a motley crew with him in his cramped galleon, as well as a mysterious object, The Folly. Also on board are the shamed and manacled detective Samuel Pipps and his bodyguard Arent.

Before long, strange goings on begin to beset the voyage. Voices in the darkness, apparent demons and superstition blight everyone on board. There is a murder in a locked room … and only reluctant heroes can save the day.

It's great fun, a hugely enjoyable and immersive follow-up to his bestselling debut The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which Turton – who previously worked as a travel journalist in Dubai – admits took up all his headspace until 2018. And if Seven Deaths was a modern take on an Agatha Christie novel, The Devil and the Dark Water has more than a nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries, with (at least) one crucial twist: the Holmes-style sleuth in this case is in chains.

“The way Poirot solves mysteries he would not have lasted two hours in this book,” says Turton. “The thing is, I don’t have the total love for Holmes that I do for Poirot; I find Holmes off-putting because he mostly treats the people around him like buffoons. I mean, Watson is a war hero and Lestrade is the head of the foremost policing unit in the world!”

I want readers to feel like they are in the book and offer as much sensory information as I possibly can

So in The Devil and the Dark Water, it's the ugly, brutish (but ultimately rather gentle) sidekick Arent who is the unwilling protagonist. Sara, unexpectedly, becomes the driving force behind the investigations. "It's about people who are secondary characters in their own lives," says Turton. Bringing these characters to the forefront, he says, was as much a surprise to him in the writing process as it is to them in the story.

"When it comes to a book like this, which is basically a puzzle to solve, you need the plot to come from convincing people with inner lives, making decisions and solving mysteries because of who they are. You don't want to have someone constantly turning up and handing them clues.

“So in this case, I found the fact these people were on board these ships at all was fascinating. I mean, they were all clearly running from something, they had no guarantee they were ever going to get where they were going … to go on a voyage like this was an act of courage and desperation; a weird, adventurous death sentence, in a way.”

These extra layers – there are some nicely nuanced reflections on commerce and the politics of capitalism, too – really do make Turton’s bestsellers stand out. Combined with the little nods to all the tropes readers love from an adventure like this; twists, constant revelations and the high-speed action, it’s a rare feat to make a 550-page novel almost breathless in its desire to please.

Turton is the first to admit that people wanting a Hilary Mantel-style historical novel should look, well, to Mantel, but the research and the commitment to character and location does lend The Devil and the Dark Water a thick period atmosphere and sense of place. Some of which, Turton says, comes from his time in Dubai.

"When I wrote Seven Deaths, like everyone reading it I was stuck in a dank house on repeat," he says. "So with The Devil and the Dark Water I was so happy that I was able to move my characters around, have different weather and smells. That was all my travel journalism. My time in Dubai for example, would remind me of the way that heat has a specific smell.

“I want readers to feel like they are in the book and offer as much sensory information as I possibly can. I know what a quay in Jakarta would be like: the spices, the air, the sizzle of a food market.”

Some of those senses were awoken when he returned to Dubai earlier this year – this time as a successful headline author at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, rather than a journalist covering it.

"You know, it was really lovely," he remembers. "It really meant something to be back in Dubai as an author, like getting through the tape at the end of the race."