Book Review - The Devil's Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth
Updated: May 9, 2018
A completely unique, and suitably dark, take on the world-weary detective character...one who's life LITERALLY is hell!
"If this is not the Hell of fire and torture, as I must accept is the case, then it is the Hell of inconvenience and difficulty and fear and uncertainty..."
So...yeah...a detective trying to catch a murderer…in Hell. Whaddya know!? When I first read the premise for The Devil's Detective, I was immediately intrigued. It sounded like a cool, unique concept, and I got a very "Planescape: Torment" vibe from it (Planescape being a rockin' PC RPG from the heyday of Dungeons & Dragons games). I mean, come on, I was all sorts of ready for a hot mess, a woe begotten bastard child conceived in dubious circumstances between classic noir detective novels and some of the lighter shock horror of modern times. And honestly, that's pretty much exactly what I got, if maybe less a hot mess and more a warm ruckus.
Mr. Unsworth’s version of Hell is one of his own creation, only loosely adhering to the expectations set down by Dante and Milton. And this is ultimately a good thing, as it allows for the story to stand on its own feet, not really wanting nor needing to follow the established version of Hell that we all grew up with. There’s actually a reason for this place to be how it is, and it works within the confines of this story. It is most definitely a Hell of inconvenience, and that point is driven home numerous times as the tale unfolds.
There’s only one POV character to be found in The Devil’s Detective, and when we meet Thomas Fool, he is very nearly a blank slate. Having been pulled from Limbo and thrust into the job of Information Man, he has no backstory, no memory of the sin that landed him in Hell, and no initial motivation for what he does, other than it’s his job to do it. While there are two other Information Men that form his “team”, and they have some defining traits, it’s really Thomas’ show from start to finish. And this is where I initially had a hard time with the novel. Because when we first meet him, Thomas Fool is just going through the motions, only vaguely aware of what his appointment entails, and how to go about it. He doesn’t really know himself, so we really don’t know him. Ergo…the proceedings tended to drag in the beginning. One point of amusing fact though, is that he has a book that essentially lays out the rules of Hell and the roles of the various officials. But it seems to be very unclear in its descriptions and usefulness, so I started likening it to the “Handbook for the Recently Deceased” from Beetlejuice, which apparently reads like stereo instructions. I kept waiting for Thomas to drop that line…
But…once he starts to learn just what an investigation is and how to go about it, the story gets interesting. In fact, I enjoyed that part the most, as we slowly start seeing Fool as his own person, developing personality traits and motivations as he goes. His plight becomes something we can invest in, and I wanted more chapters of him learning and improving investigative techniques, while developing and learning more about himself.
For a story based in Hell, the atmosphere, world building, and various characters that populate the story are all appropriately dark and wicked. This is not a tale for the squeamish, as there are atrocities, oppressions, and perversions aplenty going on (it’s Hell, what do we expect!?). The demons and other denizens of hell are varied and nasty, and there is always the palpable sense of danger and hopelessness. A feel-good tale this is not…
I will admit, for a detective novel, the central mysteries weren’t very…well…mysterious. I don’t read a lot of mystery novels, so I don’t go into a book with a “Imma figure this out!” mentality, but none of the revelations here surprised me. So either they aren’t well hidden (I’m pretty sure they aren’t)…or I just got some right for a change. Either way, it really didn’t lessen the impact of the story for me, though it might for others if they are expecting some super mysterious and unexpected twists.
Still, I enjoyed the novel, even though it took a while to get interesting. I would probably read another Thomas Fool novel, should one be in the works. So take that for what it is.
3 out of 5 fire & brimstone scented stars!