Three stars for an unconventional, intricate mystery that drew me in but left me unsatisfied.

The Book

The Rules of Blackheath:

Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. 
There are eight days, and eight witnesses for you to inhabit. 
We will only let you escape once you tell us the name of the killer. 
Understood? Then let’s begin…

Evelyn Hardcastle will die. Every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others…

The most inventive debut of the year twists together a mystery of such unexpected creativity it will leave readers guessing until the very last page.

Publisher synopsis via Goodreads

The Good

Most of this review is devoted to my issues with the book, but don’t let that distract you from the rating–three stars is solid, and there’s a lot to like about this book. I picked it up for the intriguing synopsis, and the book delivers on that promise.

It really is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and the story is intricately, carefully plotted. It never lets you settle for long before spinning the chess board again. For me, this was sometimes too much–I needed more room to get my feet under me so I could be ready for the twists–but if you read a ton of mystery and enjoy the challege, this will give you a lot to chew on.

I think I put myself at a disadvantage by listening to the audiobook instead of picking up a print version. I love audiobooks and the narrator of this one did an excellent job, but it’s just a book better suited to print. There were lots of times I wanted to be able to flip back to earlier chapters. (Sometimes this was by design–I wanted to reread sections when a twist made me see them in a different light. More often, this was because I couldn’t keep the characters straight.) When the book is working, it’s a Swiss watch of foreshadowing and mirroring and callbacks, so it can be very satisfying to watch things play out.

The Bad

To pull off this crazy premise, Turton has to give a lot away in trade. The things lost tended to be very basic story necessities–character, motivation, backstory. Beginning a book with a character who has no memory of who he is is definitely interesting and engaging, but it robs the reader of any reason to care about this person or his mission. Even when the challenge is life-and-death, there aren’t really stakes if I don’t know who these people are or what the consequences of success and failure are.

When you put aside the sci-fi-ish twist, this is actually a very old-fashioned mystery, with all the wonderful set dressing that comes along with an English country manor setting.

Unfortunately, it also comes with a very old-fashioned way of looking at people that the author doesn’t seem to be trying to avoid.

I remember, long before the casting of Jodie Whittaker was announced, a friend trying to explain to me why the Doctor, who changes body and form and, in many ways, character every regeneration, was always a white man. The friend came up dry–even though the established mythology of Doctor Who would suggest that the Doctor could and would become a wide range of people, that was simply how things were.

Reading this book felt a lot like that conversation.

The book makes a big deal of how ~different~ Aiden’s hosts are, how he experiences this enormous spectrum of human nature. A spectrum that goes deep and wide but never farther than the boundaries of white men. The narration is so interested in the shock and horror and intrigue of having to adjust to different physicalities and ways of thinking that it was impossible for me to ignore this limitation.

Stuck in Aiden’s perspective, the book is simply uninterested in the interiority of the few female characters. They are objects of desire, imposing maternal figures, or blandly helpful friends–but never fully foregrounded, even in a book that puports to be about the death of a woman.

There really was no plot or thematic reason for the constant rape/attempted rape/threat of rape that the female characters lived under. There could have been other sources of tension if the author had reached for them.

The Ugly

I was most bothered by the author’s horrific, fatphobic treatment of one of Aiden’s hosts. I say the author’s treatment and not Aiden’s treatment because it is obvious we are meant to share this perspective. The book uses the overweight man for shock value and body horror, devoting pages and pages to Aiden’s revulsion at the man’s size and sweat and uncontrollable eating. This section of the book almost had me ditching it, and I sort of regret giving this three stars given how unabashedly cruel and pointless this part is.

~~~

All told, this just wasn’t for me. I appreciate that it was an achievement in plot structure and mystery reveals, but I just don’t care about the technicalities when the emotional engines of story aren’t there. As the book wore on, I became less interested–the twists made things less satisfying instead of drawing me in. That said, I would certainly reccoomend this book as a study in craft. I think I learned a lot just from figuring out what I didn’t like.

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