The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth (Knopf, March 3, 2015)-The Devil’s Detective was unlike anything I’ve ever read. The very basic premise is that Thomas Fool is an Information Man in Hell. He gets these missives sent via pneumatic tube to his room and must mark them according to their status (most get marked DNI, or Did Not Investigate). After all, this is Hell, and murder, rape, etc are not unusual occurrences. However, when a human is killed and witnesses report seeing a blue light, Thomas is on the case.
A bit about Fool: Thomas Fool was plucked out of Limbo about 6 years before these events, and he’s always been an Information Man. He has no knowledge of the sins that landed him in Hell. All he knows is his “job” which, until now, has meant very little in the grand scheme of things, and he does this job with two other Information Men, Summer and Gordie, who are having an affair (a definite no-no in Hell.)
In addition to investigating these new (and horrific, even for Hell) murders, he also must escort two angels, Balthazar and Adam, who are in Hell to negotiate for souls to Elevate. Thomas reports directly to a being named Elderflower (Thomas is sure he’s something “other” than human, but he’s not sure what-he is the very definition of a bureaucrat), and his suspect pool is, well, demons. Lots and lots of demons.
Where to start on this one? There’s just so much packed into this unusual book. The author’s use of Hell as bureaucracy is a really nice touch. I mean, if you get down to it, what’s the point in investigating death when death is an approved recreational sport (with a few limitations)? Humans are slaves and tools for demons, and taking pleasure in anything is forbidden. Demons certainly don’t answer to humans. But, in the course of Thomas’s investigation, a strange thing starts to happen: Thomas is getting lots of attention, not just from demons in the Council, but from other humans, and when he kills his first demon, things really start to heat up, in ways Thomas could have never suspected. He’s also tasked with keeping an eye on The Man, who was thought to be human, but is now something much, much more. Keep in mind Thomas must also ferry around Balthazar and Adam, and these scenes were some of the most telling, and subtle scenes in the book. The author excels in the subtle AND the grotesque. Any bodily function you can think of is described in loving detail in this book, so the squeamish may want to take note. I got used to it (what that says about me, I don’t know) and I think I know why the author did it. THE BOOK TAKES PLACE IN HELL. I think that pretty much says it. Hell is gross. Hell is foul. Hell is a place of suffering, torture, and endless horror, and the author has used it to create a very complete, and superbly built (if highly disturbing) setting for this fantastic mash up of noir police procedural, dark fantasy, and horror. We are reminded constantly of the filth and depravity that Fool must operate in, and it’s unimaginable. Unsworth also sneaks in some social commentary as well as an exploration of free will, choice, empathy, and of course, the chance to chart one’s own destiny, all wrapped up in a gruesome, absorbing narrative with a helluva twist. What particularly delighted me were the instances of small kindnesses and empathy among the humans in a world where these things are only allowed at the sufferance of demons (or those that would keep them down.)
I could not put this book down. I feel like I missed a lot of stuff and need to go back to read it again. I just KNOW there’s a ton of symbolism in there that I missed, because I was too busy being fascinated with Thomas Fool and his push against what he feels is inevitable failure, and just plain inevitability.
Just…read this book. It’s a Bosch painting put to the page, yet, strangely, it has heart. It’s definitely on my best of 2015 list, and it deserves a huge audience.