Published: 1st October 2020
Genre: Historical Mystery
Trigger warnings: Domestic violence, sexual references, allusions to rape, animal death
It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported to Amsterdam to be executed for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent.
But no sooner are they out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A twice-dead leper stalks the decks. Strange symbols appear on the sails. Livestock is slaughtered.
And then three passengers are marked for death, including Samuel. Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?
With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent can solve a mystery that connects every passenger on board. A mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board.
This was an epic voyage of fear and foreboding that had a fiendish mystery at its heart. Full of dark imagery and the haunting presence of a paranormal entity, it is a complex story that brings together a fascinating group of characters and a fantastically immersive setting, with oceans of atmosphere. The action is good too, but is undermined somewhat by a cumbersome pace.
The concept and core themes are superbly executed, with an attention to detail that truly transports you to the ship where the vast majority of the events take place. There is a lot going on in the book and there were moments that I found much more gripping than others, but it never loses its sense of intrigue and after nearly 600 pages, the ending is totally worth the wait.
It is 1734, and Samuel Pipps is the world’s greatest detective. The extraordinary facts of his cases have been written up by his sidekick Arent Hayes, giving him something of a legendary status. But now, he has been imprisoned by governor general Jan Haan for an unknown crime and taken aboard the Saardam, a ship bound for Amsterdam.
Before they set sail, the passengers and crew are terrified by the appearance of a leper, who yells across the dockyard and declares that the Saardam is doomed. He immediately catches fire and dies, despite the best efforts of Arent and Haan’s less than adoring wife Sara to revive him. They learn that he had no tongue, which leads them to conclude that he could not have spoken the ominous words, and that everyone on the ship really is in grave danger.
When the sail unfurls and reveals the image of an eye with a tail, Arent is further alarmed, as it is exactly the same sign as a scar on his wrist that has been there since childhood. It is the mark of a demon called Old Tom, and as deadly and devilish incidents occur over the course of the journey, it appears that he is possessing one of the people on board. With no Samuel Pipps to call upon, it is up to Arent and Sara to follow the clues and discover what evil is at play.
The dramatic start and the promise of what was to come really pulled me in to this story. It was an interesting twist by the author to sideline the detective and allow other characters to be the ones tasked with solving the mystery, but it works wonderfully well as it makes things less predictable and enables these characters to undergo significant growth.
I was also extremely taken by the idea that the demon is said to be possessing one of the characters, which naturally keeps you guessing, as well as on the look out for any clues, however tiny. The one issue with this was that there are actually too many characters. They are all quite well developed in the end, but trying to remember who was who made for a difficult task at first.
The most enduring theme of the book relates to fear and how people react when they are seemingly in a life or death situation. Although I would have liked the tension to be more palpable in the writing, this is still conveyed really well, through the frightened and at times ruthless actions of those aboard the ship. Just as meaningful is the topic of how women were viewed in that time period, and I loved how the female characters so emphatically defied those social norms.
It is only at the end when the answers are revealed that you truly appreciate how clever the story is and the intricacy of the plotting, as until then it does not feel like there is much of a pattern to the events. Perhaps it is too clever. The mystery is wide-ranging and goes far beyond the question of who is being controlled by Old Tom, with elements such as the Folly, the leper, and Jan Haan’s secret cargo.
All of these details give the story a lot of depth, but unfortunately that did lead to a slow pace which I did sometimes struggle with. There are certain chapters where not much really happens and you are told things rather than shown them. On the plus side, the quality of the writing is there in abundance. The dialogue is marvellous and the book is clearly very well researched, which is evident both with the historical content and in the frequent use of nautical terms.
The whole thing is written in the third person and focuses on almost every one of the characters at various points, but the main protagonists are Arent and Sara. I really liked them both, and also the way their relationship gradually developed over the course of the book, having faith in each other all the way while never refusing to do the right thing.
Arent is a powerful and imposing figure who gets involved in several scrapes, but on the surface he is extremely gallant and kind hearted. He is clearly in awe of Samuel Pipps and doubts his own abilities, but he has a very interesting story to tell. I liked the way he went about his investigation and at one point, it looked like the entire series of events revolved around him.
From the beginning, it felt like Sara would be one of my favourite characters, and I was not proved wrong. She is strong, compassionate, and not afraid of taking action when needed. I probably connected with the story most when she appeared, and I loved the dynamic she shared with her precocious, single-minded daughter Lia, who is also highly entertaining to read.
Samuel Pipps himself only appears occasionally, but he is instantly memorable. He is charismatic and swashbuckling, with incredible powers of deduction. Jan Haan is much more of a pragmatist, choosing to stare evil in the face. The disregard he shows towards others makes him very unlikable, while the same could be said about the likes of Jacobi Drecht and Johannes Wyck.
Along with the excessive amount of characters in the book, the setting plays a very central role. I loved the uncomfortable and claustrophobic atmosphere of the Saardam, which is so vivid that it makes you feel like you are physically there, walking along the narrow corridors between cabins or witnessing the glow of the eighth lantern.
The ending is full of interesting surprises, as it removes the wool from over your eyes with some dramatic scenes that bring out the very best in the protagonists. For me, it was the highlight of the book, which was just as well because the slow pace of the rest of the story meant that it demanded an exceptional finish. The last few chapters were a terrific ride.
Overall, it was a superbly written book which provided an excellent array of characters – albeit slightly too many – and vicarious attention to detail. Sadly there were times when I was not particularly hooked by the story, but in general I really enjoyed it. Both the setting and the whole concept of Old Tom were totally memorable, and it ends with a real flourish.
It did not tick every one of the boxes, but it was still a hugely impressive read for a multitude of reasons. This is my longest book review to date, so it clearly gave me a lot to talk about! I did not love it to the same level as The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle, yet it was a more than satisfactory follow-up.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5