The Last Murder At the End of the World Doesn’t Quite Live Up to the Promise of Its Fascinating Premise

Books Reviews Stuart Turton
The Last Murder At the End of the World Doesn’t Quite Live Up to the Promise of Its Fascinating Premise

Author Stuart Turton is wildly popular for claustrophobic, plotty mysteries The 7 ½  Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and The Devil and the Dark Water, stories that play with ideas of perspective, memory, long-head secrets, and complex conspiracies. And all these elements are at work in his latest, The Last Murder at the End of the World, a genre-pushing, twisty post-apocalyptic tale about what, precisely, it means to be human. Yet, despite its creative worldbuilding and thoughtful philosophizing, the story doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the sweeping ideas within it.

A dystopian cautionary tale, a postapocalyptic thriller, and a twisty whodunnit that turns into a race against the clock to save what’s left of humanity, The Last Murder at the World deftly combines familiar themes and tropes into something rich and unexpected. Where the novel falls short, however, is its characters, who are largely flat and difficult to connect to, and whose general blandness means the story must rely on a series of misdirections to keep the narrative moving, and you may end up finishing it if only to see if your guess about what’s really going on is correct, rather than because you care what happens to any of the characters at its center.  But even though its ending doesn’t pack the punch many readers (read: me) may have hoped, the book’s fully realized worldbuilding and unique premise is worth the price of admission. 

Set on an island surrounded by the same fog that has wiped out the rest of humanity, the story follows those who are left behind. Inhabited by 122 villagers and three scientists known as the Elders, the island community lives in relative—if highly regimented—harmony. The villagers’ lives are ruled by Abi, the AI in their heads who provides commentary, advice, and gentle correction. That she can also wipe their memories, force them to fall asleep at 8:45 pm every night, and die at 60 is sort of just generally accepted. These rules don’t appear to apply to the island’s Elders, however, who live extraordinarily long lives and appear to be allowed to do whatever they want, especially the leader Niema. Clocking in at over 170 years old, she’s a former Nobel Prize winner who devised the barrier that’s currently protecting the island from the fog. But Niema has plenty of secrets of her own and after announcing her plans to finally reveal the truth of the island’s origins to its populace, she turns up dead. And solving her murder is the only way to save the island. 

The task falls to Emory, one of the few villagers who has ever questioned their lives—from the Elders’ absolute control to Abi’s existence and the weirdly specific rules that have always governed their actions. Now, she’s got 92 to hours to find a killer and restore the barrier that’s keeping the killer fog from devastating the island, or all is lost. As secrets are revealed about the Elders she trusted and the dark things that happen on the island while the bulk of its residents sleep, Emory is forced to question everything she’s ever understood about herself, the people around her, and the island she has called home.

Intricately plotted and with a slow drip of tantalizing details and revelations that will keep readers turning pages into the night, Turton’s story deftly explores themes of freedom, control, and self-determination. But the decision to use Abi as the book’s semi-omniscient and frequently unreliable narrator largely keeps the story’s primary characters at arms’ length and leaves readers in a position of somehow both knowing too much and not enough about the story that’s unfolding before them. (In many ways, we often only find out what Abi chooses to tell us, putting us in a position that’s not terribly dissimilar from Emory’s own.) As a result, this is a book that’s particularly light on characterization, and Emory is one of the only characters who is anything close to three-dimensional. The frequent red herrings toward the end of the book edge perilously close to frustrating, as there are moments where it feels like every character we’ve spent any length of time with is, at various points, accused of the murder. 

There are so many good ideas at work in The Last Murder at the End of the World. Essentially a locked room mystery on steroids, it has lots of timely and important to say about the nature of humanity, whether goodness is inherent or learned behavior, and even the dangers of climate change. If only the story’s execution didn’t make it so difficult to really connect with or care about most of the characters or the world they might inherit. 

The Last Murder at the End of the World is available now wherever books are sold. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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