A man is running through the forest yelling, "Anna." He notices he is wearing someone else's dinner jacket. When he looks down, he discovers he has another person's hands. He has no memory of who he is, how he made his way to the forest, or why he is inside another person's body. A silver compass drops from his pocket. A voice whispers one word: "East."
This is the opening of journalist Stuart Turton's first novel, The 7 1⁄2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Turton set out to write an Agatha Christie–style story, complete with the big country house and rich people with secrets, but this isn't your parents' murder mystery.
"If you think Downton Abbey with a body count, you're halfway there," Turton says. The other half makes up what he calls "the most complicated murder mystery imaginable."
To be sure, nothing is predictable in the fast-paced pages of The 7 1⁄2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. After realizing that he is Aiden Bishop, the novel's protagonist is given eight chances to solve a murder before it even takes place. Bishop must relive the day of the crime eight times in a Groundhog Day–style time loop.
As if all that time travel weren't tough enough, Bishop experiences each day in the body of another character. Each physique is different from the one that preceded it. All have challenges for Bishop to overcome.
Turton says he used the bodies to help pace the story. Age, physical health, and intelligence accelerate or slow down the action at various points. "I needed somebody early in the book to run around the house getting in scrapes," he says. "So I invented a character who was young, fit, and very stupid. He had been preceded by a banker who was overweight but extremely clever." To keep track of this complexity, Turton says he used "the world's largest supply of Post-it notes, a vast spreadsheet, and separate notebooks for each character, detailing their motivations, habits, and peculiarities."
While Turton keeps a regular writing schedule, he is not a fan of daily writing goals. "Writing's stressful enough as it is without putting artificial word counts on what I'm doing," he says. "If it's good, I keep doing it. If it's bad, I stop and play my guitar until my brain unknots itself. Then I try again. Some days I play a lot of guitar."
The 7 1⁄2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is just the beginning of Turton's novel-writing career. He's currently working on a new book. "By the time I finish this one," Turton says, "whatever I told you now would pretty much be a lie, so I'm going to keep quiet, except to say that it's going to be strange and fun and epic. That's what I'm hoping."