A man wakes up in the middle of a wood, with a single name on his lips: “Anna”. That’s all he has. His mind and memories are blank. Who is Anna? What is she to him? Who is he? He has no idea. When he sees a screaming woman running through the wood, followed by a man in a dark coat, and hears a shot shortly afterwards, he knows he has just witnessed a murder. But when, terrified, he stumbles out of the woods and into the grounds of a crumbling country house, he discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. For this novel is in a genre all of its own: a ferociously creative, time-travelling, body-hopping murder mystery, which reads like a cross between Memento, Inception and Groundhog Day, written by Agatha Christie.
It turns out the man’s name is Sebastian Bell and that he is a guest at a house party here, at Blackheath, given by the Hardcastle family. He nervously begins to piece together other fragments of his identity, but the answers only bring more questions. Why is Bell at Blackheath? Why are the Hardcastles throwing a party on the nineteenth anniversary of their infant son’s murder? Why are two eerie figures shadowing Bell – one, a man in a plague doctor’s mask; the other, a vicious footman? Why does the plague doctor think that Bell can save Evelyn Hardcastle, the hosts’ daughter, who is due to be murdered at the ball this evening? And why, after stumbling through an increasingly terrifying day, does this man wake up to find himself in another body, back at the start of the same bewildering day?
Gradually, things seem to fall into place, although our narrator is met at every turn by bluffs, double-bluffs and revelations that throw into question everything he thinks he knows. He is not Sebastian Bell; nor is he the burned and abused butler in whose body he wakes up on the second morning. He is someone else, temporarily using these unwitting ‘host’ bodies in a quest to solve a murder that has never been explained. And he has lived this day hundreds, thousands of times, and each time so far has been a failure. This time, he’s determined that things will be different. If he can find out who murdered Evelyn Hardcastle, and bring the plague doctor the answer at the stroke of 11pm, he can be freed. But he isn’t the only one searching for an answer. And his rivals are more ruthless and more knowledgeable than he is. Only one person can escape. And the race is on.
I can honestly say I’ve never read anything quite like this before. It’s not a novel so much as an experience: it demands a lot of focus. At times, it becomes deliciously complicated, as our narrator looks through the eyes of his current host to watch his previous hosts hurrying around on his earlier errands. Turton must have got through reams of paper, plotting out the movements of his various characters. It brims with imagination. The one thing I would say is that at times it didn’t really feel like a novel: it felt more like reading the action from a particularly brilliant computer game, in the old-fashioned investigative adventure mode (did anyone else play games like King’s Quest or The Last Express?). That is not a criticism, mind. I haven’t played a proper computer game in years, but I’d buy something like this like a shot. There were a lot of questions left unanswered, though you could argue that it’s better that way, as the story walks a strange line between fantasy and moral fable. But it does mean that one has to read it in the right frame of mind: engaged enough to follow the labyrinthine twists, but not so engaged that you start to ask questions that can’t be answered.
Curious and compelling, this is a confident debut and well worth savouring. Turton evidently has an incredibly rich imagination and it’ll be a treat to see what he comes up with next.