The Last Murder at the End of the World
Stuart Turton
Published by Raven Books on March 28 but available to pre-order now 

I RECKON this is a smash hit. Towards the end of 2023, I was sent The Last Murder at the End of the World by Stuart Turton. What an intriguing title, I thought. I began reading and couldn’t stop.

The novel isn’t published until March, but that’s far too long a wait to tell readers about this remarkable novel. So I got the OK from the publisher to run this review earlier than usual. I think I may be the first reviewer.

It’s not perfect. There are some flaws at the end. But it’s a helluva journey. Without question, you’ll be watching an adaption of this on Netflix.

It’s not “great” literature. It won’t win the Booker Prize. But it’s damn well-written, with some big and bold ideas in there, and it’s just the best fun.

It begins somewhat like the TV series Lost. A bunch of people are trapped on an island, divided into villagers and elders. Villagers are a happy bunch, pottering around doing essential tasks like farming. Elders are seemingly kindly, teacher-like leaders.

The Herald: Matthew Fox in LostMatthew Fox in Lost (Image: Channel 4)

However, almost immediately we learn there’s going to be a murder. That murder will trigger the end of the world unless it’s solved in a matter of hours.

The narrator tell us: “Such is the delicate scaffolding of events the future rests on, if even one piece is out of place, everybody will be crushed beneath it.” Those words could be applied to the structure of this book, as intricate as an alien puzzle.

But what on Earth is going on? How does the narrator – who appears to be part of the island community – know a murder is going to happen? Can they predict the future? How can a murder destroy the world?

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You’re left in a permanent state of excited confusion, immediately thrust into the role of investigator-as-reader.

We quickly discover the island is surrounded by lethal fog. The apocalypse has taken place, and humanity all but been destroyed.

The few survivors live on this strange island, terrified the fog may close in and end their lives.

A murder amid humanity’s last survivors. Pretty good premise, right?

Well, this book is only getting started. That fog is a potent symbol for the tone, style and structure of this novel. As reader, you’re constantly fingertip-searching through each page, clue-hunting.

Why do the villagers die aged 60? Why do children mysteriously appear on the island aged eight? Why don’t women get pregnant? Why do the elders live for hundreds of years?

Are the villagers all smaller than the elders? Why are villagers so deferential to elders? Why do the villagers all fall asleep at the same time?

And what the hell was that scuttling through the bushes? A squirrel? With antennae? Did I just see a flower … with teeth?

Where are we? When are we? Why are we?

I need to be careful as a reviewer. I want to tell you what this book is really about, but one wrong step and I’ll ruin Turton’s meticulously crafted tale.

What I can say is this: the narrator isn’t all they seem to be. I use the word “they” deliberately, though perhaps “it” would be better. We’re also definitely on Earth, and there’s been an apocalypse.

It feels as if this apocalypse happened maybe in the middle of this century, perhaps 2030 – we’re never sure of anything in this book. The action of the novel seems set around 2300.

Adrenalin is constantly ratcheted up with section headings such as “19 Hours to Humanity’s Extinction”.

Skating around a landscape of spoilers, I can say that one of the villagers, Emory, assumes the role of detective, and quite the Sherlock Holmes she turns out to be.

She is, as our exceptionally unreliable narrator tells us “full of doubt in a world of conviction”.

Here’s the literary power of this book, for it certainly carries some artistic heft, it’s not just an airport blockbuster: there’s an unsettling contempt for humanity running through the entire work.

At one point, Emory looks at the famous painting of the resurrection of Christ by Piero della Francesca – yes, that’s on the island too … but why? – and “feels such resentment towards humanity” she can’t bring herself to celebrate this beautiful work of art.

As we inch forward into the plot, slowly discovering the secrets of this phantasmagorical world Turton has constructed, we realise we’re effectively in a form of gothic novel.

This is really a Frankenstein story, about science gone wrong; about how humankind’s violence, cruelty and selfishness when harnessed to our genius for technology and invention are our guaranteed highway to hell.

What Turton’s book essentially calls for is the meek inheriting the Earth. This is a counter-blast to the likes of Elon Musk, so riddled with narcissism, greed, wealth and power, that, in truth, they’ve surrendered their humanity.

What it means to be human is a big question this book raises, though doesn’t really answer.

That’s why the book can claim to be more than just good fun. It’s worthwhile. It doesn’t exactly analyse the human condition, but it certainly puts it on stage.

In the end, there’s a form of hope which emerges, from a work which doesn’t make the reader feel great about our species. Yet, to be honest, is there much to feel great about towards humanity in 2024?

The book is flawed come the end. The murder mystery constructed is as complex as any Agatha Christie whodunnit, but this is a huge puzzle. We may begin with a murder, but by the end our detective Emory is trying to work out why the island she lives on exists, the truth about the villagers and the elders, the fog and the apocalypse.

To do that, Turton has to take up far too many pages of late exposition, allowing Emory to explain what precisely has happened.

As reader, you’ll know most of the story by this stage, but the connecting tissue of Emory’s investigation is required to make sense of it all.

How that’s handled is rather disappointing.

Given the book feels like a literary cousin to the TV series Lost, that messy ending is no surprise if you recall how the show concluded.

Truthfully, though, I didn’t much care by the end that Turton fumbled the denouement. The ride was worth that flawed finale.