Ginger Nuts of Horror
They say, "he who sups with the Devil should eat with a long spoon." If that is the case then I suspect that Simon Kurt Unsworth not only has a long spoon, but one that is also cast from solid silver. His debut novel The Devils Detective is one of those books, that if you believed in such things, was penned by a writer who had made a deal with the devil.
Thomas Fool is an Information man, one of Hell's special brand of Detectives a man who, up until he is given the call to investigate a brutal death, which sees the victim's soul become totally and utterly destroyed, feels as though he is just going through the motions, more of a yes man than an information man. But there is something about this murder that worms his way into his mind. Fool is determined to solve the crime, no matter who or what he upsets. He doesn't care who takes notice of him, or how much attention he draws to himself and his fellow investigators. And as we all know that may not be the best thing to do in Hell.
The Devil's Detective is a is a richly detailed novel that brims with inventive ideas and clever ambitious writing. Unsworth's version of Hell has been painted with exquisitely detailed strokes. Rather than going with the standard vision of Hell, this personal hell has a more of a feudal feel. It has its own towns and cities, some are grand, some are slum ghettos, hell, some are even red light districts, where humans and devils walk the same streets. At times while reading the novel it almost felt as though we were walking in the same lands as those from the classic computer game Ultima.
However, it is not just the lands that are painted with great detail. Unsworth has gone to great lengths to ensure the lands of hell feel real, much of this is thanks to his descriptions of the class system of the lands. A system that sees the humans at the bottom of a bureaucratic hellhole. Everyone in Hell has to answer to someone. There is a brilliant scene near the start of the book, where the Devils to whom Fool reports to, have a system whereby they chose who gets to interrogate the corpse. Unsworth's description of this stupid bureaucracy is worthy of anything ever used in Yes Prime Minister.
It says a great deal about the level of Unsworth's writing when the world building and sense of awe and wonder that can be found in this book far outstrips that found in a novel from a real master of the genre. Hands down The Devil's Detective is a far more satisfying read than Barker's Scarlet Gospels.
This is Thomas Fool's story and as such the main thrust of character development is kept for our intrepid detective. Fool's journey from a somewhat nervous and insecure cipher to a man on a mission is handled with great care and attention, which makes for a very strong lead character. The supplementary characters are not as richly detailed which is a pity, as I would loved to have read more about Elderflower.
The Devil's Detective has the capability to be a real breakout novel, one of those rare breeds of a horror novel that manages to escape from the genre and appeal to much wider audience. The balance between the genre trappings and tropes of both horror and crime is perfectly balanced. While some may see the revelation of the story before our intrepid detective this is nevertheless an accomplished crime story.
AC/DC once said Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be, and you know what when the writing is this good Hell is a damn fine place to be indeed.