Book Review: The Devil and the Dark Water

The book, The Devil and the Dark Water, set in 1634, starts when a fleet of spice-laden ships sets sail from Batavia to Amsterdam. Long before the British started looting the world, the United East India Company was the world’s wealthiest trading company. Among their outposts, Batavia was the most profitable. Navigational techniques were iffy, and the 8-month voyage was at the mercy of pirates, storms, and disease.

The lead ship, Saardam, has a set of interesting characters. First, there is the Governor-General along with his wife, daughter, and mistress. Another passenger is Samuel Pipps— an investigator who has solved many cases— jailed in the ship for execution at Amsterdam.

Then there is Old Tom, a supernatural demon, who previously wreaked havoc in various provinces. It possessed various wealthy nobles causing them to commit large-scale violence. It announced itself, in the provinces and on the ship, with a mark that resembled an eye with a tail.

Soon after the ship sets sail, stranger things begin; people get murdered. The narrative is that Old Tom is back — evident from his symbol, which mysteriously appears in random places — taking revenge. Old Tom whispered to others to murder, and one of his accomplices, a leper, stalked the cargo hold freely.

Since Samuel Pipps is a prisoner, it falls on his bodyguard Arent Hayes to find the truth. Hayes is not as talented as Pipps in figuring out a story after it has happened from bits of paper left behind. As Hayes starts investigating, uncomfortable truths about the past of various people surface. This is a ship filled with sailors for whom profit comes before principle, pride, and people. It seems they are all connected and have incentives for murder.

Such books, which are historical murder mysteries, are hard to come by. The last ones I read were the Snake Stone and its sequels. In a world where historical fiction means writing yet another book about the Tudor world, this book is like smelling air freshener in a fish market. Another positive is that the book is about the Dutch East India trade, which I do not know much about. Finally, the book’s locale, a floating vessel of wood and nails, make it unique.

The book is well written, bringing out the ship’s ambiance enriched by bilgewater with dead rats. There is mutiny, storm, and shady sailors who can murder anyone for a coin.

“Everybody thinks sailing is about the wind and waves. It ain’t. Sailing’s about the crew, which means it’s about superstition and hate. The men you’re depending on to get you home are murderers, cutpurses, and malcontents, unfit for anything else. They’re only on this ship because they’d be hanged anywhere else. They’ve got short tempers and violent passions, and we’ve locked them all together in a space we’d feel bad keeping cattle in. Captain Crauwels sails this ship, and I keep the crew from mutiny. If either of us makes a mistake, we’re all dead.”

Hayes follows the dictum of Pipps.

“Whether this is a devil dressed as a man or a man dressed as a devil, our course of action remains the same. We must investigate each incident, then follow the clues back to the truth.”

The book is a tad too long. It gets slow towards the middle, and you have to force yourself to read through to find out how a mysterious light could show up in the sea or how a “demon” could roam around a ship.