The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a highly original début that defies description. It’s part gothic, part murder mystery and part science fiction novel but there’s a whole lot more to It than that. Innovative and unconventional, it is a unique reading experience.
He doesn’t know who he is, where he is or why he’s there. He only knows Anna. Anna whom he believes is running through the woods. He is afraid as he chases after her; he thinks she must be, too. His legs hurt, he’s cold and inappropriately dressed for a run through the forest. He stops when he hears the gunshot; he can’t move when a man comes up behind him and places a compass in his pocket, saying simply the word, “East.” After a while, when the discomfort of staying still outweighs his fear of going forward, he moves. He heads east, finds the dilapidated manor house, reports the probable murder and despises his own cowardice. He learns his name is Sebastian Bell. It’s obvious to him that whoever he is or was, he is a weak, unworthy man who let a woman die because he lacked the courage to rescue her.
But the reality, as he quickly learns, is actually worse than that. Bell is a guest at a house party thrown in honor of Evelyn Hardcastle’s return from Paris. She’ll be murdered that night while he watches. She’s been murdered hundreds of times already. He is one of eight hosts for the mind/spirit of a man named Aiden Bishop who is tasked with solving the crime. Aiden spends twenty-four hours with each host, cycling through them on a regular basis. He will relive the day of Evelyn’s demise over and over until he can identify the perpetrator. He must give the correct answer to the man in the plague doctor’s costume by the end of the eighth day or have his memories erased and begin again.
There are two other souls trying to figure out who the killer is and get out of the perpetual hell that is Blackheath House. Two people who will lose if Aiden wins. Two people who just might kill all eight of his incarnations to make sure that never happens. They’ve done it before. How will he keep them from doing it again?
Set in an English manor house in the years after the First World War, this is an atmospheric, chilling whodunit. The setting is cold, sinister, cryptic and deliciously eerie. It provides a perfect backdrop for a story where nothing is quite as it seems.
If you can imagine not knowing who you are, where you are, who anyone else is or what’s going on, you have a pretty clear idea of how Aiden feels throughout most of this novel. That untethered-to-reality quality might be annoying in some books, but the author does a good job of making it work here. By combining it with the mystery of the murder he gives the story the feel of a good thriller with an uncertain narrator.
The crime itself, when we come to the actual solution of it, is quite clever and thrilling. One of the benefits of the multiple hosts is that they allow Aiden to form a panoramic view of the murder so that he can move beyond the surface of the event and see a great deal more of what lies beneath than any single person could. It’s a riveting aspect of the tale and the author does a magnificent job of bringing the various views together into a coherent whole.
Another advantage to the multiple hosts is that it both limits and expands the number of people we are dealing with. It limits them in the sense that we have only one narrator, Aiden. However, that actuality is expanded since we are intimately introduced to eight other people via Aiden’s ‘possession’ of the hosts. I liked that each host had a unique physical form, mindset and history which Aiden had to grapple with and utilize to solve the mystery. It brings to mind for the reader how our physical limitations/abilities and thought patterns affect how we work through problems.
Aiden’s personas are all different. My favorite is easily Constable Jim Rashton, a kind and decent young man with a fantastic sense of justice and a loving heart. Bell is a conundrum; a man capable of making friends and being good but a with a dark secret and weak core. The lawyer Dance is much as his name implies; he has a nimble mind but it’s mercurial and mercenary. I loved Lord Ravencourt’s cleverness and Gold’s artistic eye. They each bring interesting talents to the job of sleuthing. I had only a few disappointments in regard to the hosts, one being that the author didn’t use a female host because I would have enjoyed seeing a contrast between male vs. female perspectives.
Another disappointment was that I deeply disliked the fat shaming that occurred with one of the characters. Aiden inhabits a drug addict, drug dealer, rapist and abusive father but the person who makes him “overcome by disgust and shame” is the obese host. It’s not that he likes the others, but from the way the weight issue is discussed, it seemed almost as if he considers this flaw equal to that of the others. When it was later alluded to that the obese character might also be gay, I was troubled. To be clear, nothing negative is said about gay people. Nothing. But I wondered why that particular characteristic was given to a host Aiden was somewhat appalled by. It just made me a little uneasy since the added characteristic was unnecessary.
In fact, Aiden’s disgust with several of his varying host’s flaws left me feeling less than charitable toward him. He was critiquing and condemning people while knowing only some of their story and it seemed on occasion to reveal a judgmental and vain character on his part. I wonder, if positions had been reversed, what kind of host would they have considered him?
The novel has themes of redemption and rehabilitation running through it which I found myself at odds with as well. I disagreed that this situation would result in positive changes to anyone’s heart or moral structure and struggled to accept that the ending in any way reflected reparation and atonement.
Those quibbles aside, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is an intriguing mystery wrapped in a clever, exceptional package. If you are a fan of science fiction, the movie Groundhog Day, the Netflix show Altered Carbon or just enjoy unique suspense stories, I think you will enjoy this. If you are a fan of all those things, I would say it’s probably a must read for you.