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‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ and the philosophy of the Escape Room

Updated: Jun 23, 2019

Tomorrow can be whatever I want it to be, which means for the first time in decades, I can look forward to it. Instead of being something to fear, it can be a promise I make myself. A chance to be braver or kinder, to make what was wrong right. To be better than I am today.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton


The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a fascinating twist on your typical Agatha Christie mystery. Turton has “scratched” his “Agatha Christie itch”, as he puts it in his postscript, and he has done so very successfully.

But this is far more than your average tongue-in-cheek country house murder mystery. Turton provides us with a crime as intriguing and surprising as any good Christie puzzle, but with the addition of a mind-boggling time-loop narrative and a body-swapping, amnesiac protagonist.

It’s an exciting combination. Rather than a nostalgic ‘whodunnit’, Turton creates a strangely dystopian fiction that brings to mind films like The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Groundhog Day. He also captures some of the claustrophobic horror of psychological thrillers like The Village and The Others. (There’s a cinematic feel to the book, hence the list of films. Unsurprisingly, it is going to be made into a TV series.)

Aiden Bishop, the novel’s protagonist, finds himself trapped in a time-loop and in order to escape he must navigate his way through a maze of conundrums and moral dilemmas, much like the characters of Truman, Neo, and Phil Connors, each of whom must face their own ethical paradoxes whilst trying to understand their strange new realities. All of these stories invite us to contemplate our power (or seeming powerlessness) in the face of the future. To what extent are we capable of changing our future? Can we learn to make decisions that will lead us to new, better, and unexpected places? But these narratives are not just about our desire to break out of a predestined future; more importantly perhaps, they are about our ability to grow into stronger, more courageous, more loving people along the way. Can we make the right decisions when “we think people aren’t watching?”, as the Plague Doctor says in The Seven Deaths.

What makes Turton’s story particularly intriguing and philosophically captivating is his use of body-swapping as a plot device. Aiden quite literally embodies the battle between good and evil that takes place in every human heart. Like Christie’s Poirot says, “Everyone is a potential murderer. In everyone there arises from time to time the wish to kill.” In this novel, we watch as Aiden wrestles with the darker desires and impulses of his ‘hosts’, including this desire to kill.

However, even in the midst of all this inner and outer chaos, Aiden somehow manages to cling onto some trace of human goodness, some ounce of moral integrity that has survived from his ‘real’ self before he became trapped within the ‘hosts’. It’s a disorientating premise; we are asked to imagine a world in which the human will can be separated from the whole human person.

Rowan Williams makes an interesting point about this sort of idea in ‘Silence and Honey Cakes’, arguing that the human will and the human identity is inextricably linked. He presents the person of Jesus Christ as the ultimate example of a unified will and person:

“But the human will is not the human person, and all this is quite abstract when considered apart from the person who activates the willing. There are no such things as wills that drift around in mid-air making decisions (although there are modern writers, from certain kinds of novelist to certain kinds of psychologist, who seem to suggest that this would be nice). Persons do the deciding; and when you have a person who is wholly self-consistent, whose identity is completely bound up in the calling to live in unreserved intimacy with God as Father, there is, as we say, no choice. Not because something external limits what’s possible, but because the person has such solid reality, such distinctive and reliable identity that it will do what is consistent with being that person - and in the case of Jesus, this means doing what God requires for the salvation of the world.”

The Seven Deaths raises huge questions about identity. What part of Aiden Bishop’s actions in this novel are truly his own? And how much has his own ‘solid reality’ and his ‘reliable identity’ been lost within the chaos and confusion of the time-loop? This ‘locked room mystery’ resounds with contemporary concerns about the breakdown of community and reveals our anxieties surrounding the search for authentic identity. It is perhaps no coincidence that in an age of increasingly cyber-based interactions and individualistic ideals, the popularity of Escape Rooms is on the rise. These puzzles satisfy a growing thirst for ‘team’ games, even if the experience is only an artificial one. Blackheath acts almost as an anti-escape room; rather than creating community, it turns its inhabitants against each other:

This place pinches out the hope in people, and without that hope, what use is love or compassion or kindness?

Like an Escape Room, the Blackheath prison is only a simulated reality. It would be tempting to think that in this context the concept of ‘consequence’ might start to lose its meaning, but Aiden’s reflections suggest that the ‘fake’ world of Blackheath has only strengthened his understanding of reality and consequence: “Every life has such a weight. I don’t know how anybody carries even one.”

This sentiment seems to me to be emblematic of so many of our modern crises. Aiden Bishop is a very literal Everyman. He reveals to us the heavy burden of ‘choice’ that each of us carries in our individualistic society. In a consumerist world, our choices have become vitally important to us; adverts tell us that if we buy the right perfume then we might just allure the perfect partner. And yet our choices have simultaneously become less valuable and meaningful than ever. We can change our ‘life partners’ as quickly and easily as we change our perfume (or so we tell ourselves.) Choice defines the modern individual. It has become almost synonymous with the concept of identity. However, when freedom of choice takes priority over other important values, such as faithfulness, goodness, or loyalty, we find ourselves lost and overwhelmed. Aiden’s amnesia, physical wounds, and emotional desperation as he seeks a way out of nightmarish Blackheath is an apt metaphor for a broken humanity and our fumbling attempts at finding a clear path forwards. As Aiden says, “If this is hell, then it's one of our making.”

And yet all hope is not lost. Even with all the moral complexity and ambiguity within this story, the ending offers a picture of redemption and the possibility of healing. (And of course, a solution to the mystery). We know very little of Aiden, but as the story unravels, we start to see glimpses of the person he used to be. Here is a man who has suffered tragedy, who has chosen to respond to violence with violence, and who is finally learning that there may be another path. His unrelenting desire for justice after the murder of his sister is replaced by a new unrelenting desire to save the mysterious, Anna. Whilst this plot twist in itself shows how much Aiden has forgotten about himself, it paradoxically also speaks of Aiden’s deep love for others. Despite his failures, his disloyalty, and his murderous intentions and actions, there is a moral strength within him that eventually prevails.

In a world that seems to be full of enemies, Aiden manages to escape by making allies and forming friendships in the most unlikely of circumstances. Like Neo in The Matrix, he has to learn who he can trust. There are also echoes of Andy Dufresne’s plight in The Shawshank Redemption, another film that reflects on the importance of that ‘dangerous thing’ called hope. These stories remind us that even in the darkest of situations, we all have a choice about how we respond to the violence and chaos surrounding us. Will we cause further destruction, or seek some semblance of community?

This is a book that recognises the responsibility that each human being carries, and it raises some pretty massive questions about how we carry this heavy load. How do we fight for true justice when the justice system itself can be so flawed? Who deserves a second chance? How on earth are we meant to discover who we are in the messiness of life? How do we find both our identity as individuals and as a community?

At the end of this book, I found myself with much the same feeling that I had after watching the Truman Show. Even with all the loose ends tied up neatly, there is a lacking sense of resolution, because there is no certainty about what the future holds. What kind of world is outside? And how does our protagonist adjust?

“Tomorrow can be whatever I want it to be” concludes Aiden, and yet there lingers the question, how are we to become “braver and kinder” when we can so easily fall into bitterness and confusion? Has Aiden truly learnt from his mistakes? He talks about his future as though it is a blank canvas, and yet in reality none of us are able to free ourselves from the past.

And I think that is where Rowan Williams would direct us back to the person of Jesus and His “wholly self-consistent identity”. If we are to make better decisions and realise our purpose, then a rediscovery of our true ‘calling’ may be the answer we are looking for.

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