This was a fun read. Historical fiction, mystery novel, adventure story. Most of the action takes place on board a ship called the Saardam, travelling from Batavia (modern day Indonesia) to Amsterdam in the 17th Century. The ship belongs to The Company and is under control by Jan Haan, the governor-general of Batavia, travelling to Amsterdam to join the powerful group called the Gentleman 17. Some of this is based in historical fact but in his afterword Turton freely acknowledges that he has not stuck fast to fact. None of that mattered much because the story as it is told is fast-paced and engaging.
We follow a myriad of characters, including Sara, Haan’s spirited wife, and Arent Hayes, bodyguard to the brilliant detective Samuel Pipps. Pipps is imprisoned in a dark cell on this voyage though, manacled for a crime unknown to either himself or Arent. Pipps is a sort of Sherlock character, able to deduce a bounty of information from the smallest of details. Arent is completely loyal to Pipps, a rougher type of Watson, a former mercenary and physical huge.
Before the Saardam leaves dock, a leper casts a terrifying prophecy over the ship and then seems to self-immolate. Yet he is later seen on board the ship and quickly mysteries sprout up. It appears that the Saardam and those on board are being haunted by a devil called Old Tom. Unholy miracles, murder, and mass chaos are promised and seem to be inevitable and with Pipps imprisoned, it is up to Arent and Sara to figure out the truth.
The addition of mysticism and the idea of Old Tom add a lot to what could have been a run-of-the-mill but entertaining mystery. With this spiritual aspect there is the element that any person on board the ship could be possessed by Old Tom. There are connections spreading far back for many of the passengers that make Old Tom a convincing story but is the evil being perpetrated on the Saardam truly supernatural or is it simply evil that humans are too easily capable of inflicting on each other?
Arent and Sara are both easy characters to cheer for and follow along with. Theoretically, anyone on board could be Old Tom but we’re never really meant to suspect either of them. While I had an inkling of the truth that comes out in the end, I hadn’t figured out some key elements. The story was wrapped up a little too neatly but I do prefer that to loose ends when it comes to mysteries. Overall this was a fun read and a great book to pick up when a heat wave made it hard to want to do anything!