1634. A ship, the Saardam, is about to set sail from Batavia in the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam. The ship is carrying a secret cargo that only very few know about. On board are the ambitious Governor General of Batavia, Jan Haan; his wife Sara Wessel and daughter Lia; Samuel Pipps, a detective under arrest; Arendt Hayes, Sam’s friend, assistant and bodyguard; and Cressjie Jens, Haan’s mistress and Sara’s friend.
Jan Haan has been summoned to Amsterdam to join “the Gentlemen 17”, an exclusive and sinister-sounding group that runs the East India Company. He hopes that the secret cargo on the ship will win their respect and admiration.
But the voyage is not going according to plan. As the passengers board, a leper wrapped in grey bandages stands on a pile of crates on the dock and calls out a warning. “Know that my master…sails aboard the Saardam. He is the lord of hidden things; all desperate and dark things. … The Saardam’s cargo is sin and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam.”
With that, he bursts into flame. When Sara and Arendt rush towards him to help, they find a man with his tongue cut out. Never mind how a man in his condition could climb onto a pile of crates: how could a man speak without a tongue?
That is just the beginning. When the sails are unfurled, one of them has the drawing of an eye with a tail, a symbol associated with the devil, which keeps appearing on the ship. A mysterious voice whispers to the crew and the passengers at night, promising them their hearts’ desires (but there is always a price to pay). And the dead leper, supposedly left behind on the docks, keeps making appearances.
Then there is a perfect murder. A man stabbed in his locked cabin, with a bodyguard posted outside his door. Are the strange things happening on the ship really the Devil’s doing or is there a human hand behind them? Sam, the only man who can help solve the mystery, is locked in a tiny cell and allowed out briefly at night. Arendt and Sara are left to join forces to try to solve the mystery.
This is a rollicking yarn from Stuart Turton. As in his first book, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, he takes a traditional whodunit scenario—a group of people in a confined space—and gives it his own peculiar twist. The book is clever, original and with an engaging cast of characters. Sara Wessel, in particular, is a wonderful creation, spirited and clever, qualities not approved of in women at the time. Although she is married to an arrogant, cruel man whom she hates, she refuses to let him destroy her. Jaan Haan, who is the nastiest person in the book, is given an added dimension through his relationship with Arendt, who knew him as a kind man.
The book is full of twists and turns that keep you guessing until the end. It was one of my most enjoyable reads of 2020.