A man wakes to a clanging bell, disorientated, in a room not his own. He grabs a ratty brown dressing gown, inhaling cheap cologne as he exits then ascends the stairs, dodging servants to answer the front door. A wild-eyed figure is shivering, pleading for a telephone.
A jolt of deja vu, high on the Richter scale. For the man experienced this exact conversation yesterday, except then he was the wild-eyed doctor, dripping at the manor door, asking a just-woken butler for help.
What is going on?
"I'd always wanted to write an Agatha Christie novel, I just love them, they represent to me the most fun you can have reading a book, like a game or a puzzle," says Stuart Turton, before taking a sip of his coffee and glancing out over the drizzle-swept Thames.
"But she's done all of them, so many different mystery plots and twists. I knew I needed to add something else, otherwise I'd just write an inferior Agatha Christie novel. But I had nothing."
Turton smiles as he reminisces on his earliest days of wanting to be a novelist, more than a decade ago. Notions swirling, not quite gelling. Something missing. He travelled the world, stocking shelves in a Darwin bookshop and teaching English in Shanghai. He worked as a journalist, including three years in Dubai working for Etihad's in-flight magazine.
He is a big fan of literary fiction, referencing the likes of Arundhati Roy and John Fowles as we talk. "I love beautiful writing." He's also an unabashed fan of Agatha Christie. "She was a much better writer than people give her credit for and a lot of crime nowadays is a reworking of a Christie plot."
In The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Turton brings that together with his own twist. It's an intricately plotted and exquisitely written murder mystery that combines classic Christie-esque atmosphere with something entirely of its own. Cluedo meets Quantum Leap, although that only distils part of its essence.
The narrator, Aiden Bishop, is invited by Lord and Lady Hardcastle to a masked ball at Blackheath, a decrepit manor on a rambling estate where their son was murdered 19 years before. Now their daughter, Evelyn, has returned from Paris, an eclectic group is gathered but celebrations turn tragic. Evelyn is shot during the masked ball. Who is responsible?
So far, so Agatha. Here's where Turton veers; a few years ago when he was dead tired on a flight, his love of classic mysteries mashed up with being a child of the 80s, lighting a candelabra in his mind.
Aiden will keep reliving the same day until he uncovers and proves who killed Evelyn — but each day he relives will be in the body of a different guest. As a sinister figure — cloaked in the black garb and beaked mask of a medieval plague doctor — explains, Aiden gets eight chances to live the day, to find and sift through the clues, suspects and red herrings. If after eight days he still hasn't found the answer, the whole loop starts again, his memories wiped.
It's Poirot in purgatory, robbed of his famed "little grey cells". Aiden is trapped like Bill Murray's Groundhog Day character Phil Connors in a never-ending loop until he gets the day right, and also uncontrollably leaping from body to body like Scott Bakula's Sam Beckett in the TV series Quantum Leap.
"The concept came to me in a solid lump on that flight," says Turton. "I was half asleep, dreaming with my eyes open, and it was just there. I started playing with the idea and immediately thought, 'that's cool, will it work?' I wrote about 2000 words on the plane, none of which are really in the book any more. But I had the main concept of this one guy waking up inside the body of a different character each day."
Although the idea coalesced quickly, the novel did not. Turton and his partner left Dubai with the intention of him spending a year on the book. It took more than three years to write. He developed a routine where he'd write a few hundred words from the perspective of each major character, about something that was nothing to do with the book itself.
Going shopping, shaving; mundane things that allowed him to get in their heads and hear their voices. He drew maps, timelines, made spreadsheets, boosted 3M's profits with his post-it note usage.
"Then when I was a week into writing it, I got a great idea about time travel and to put it in. I had to change things," he says. "A couple of weeks later, I got another idea that changed things again. Probably about 60 per cent of the original plan is still in there."
Throughout, Turton was determined to be scrupulously fair to the readers, giving them a chance — as Christie did — to solve his mystery no matter how fiendishly clever. He wrote in first-person present, so the reader experiences things as the narrator does. He even binned and rewrote 40,000 words when he realised he'd made an error in the timeline.
"When you're writing, what you want to do is get the reader through that piece of writing without pulling them out of the story," says Turton, who admits it's "weird and cool" to finally be published. "The books I love are books you're reading at 2am despite yourself."
The hard work paid off. His debut is a 2am kind of book.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (Bloomsbury, $27) is out on Thursday, March 1