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Review: The Devil's Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Genre: Crime noir and horror crossover.
Originally published: 2015.

Have you read this book? Do you agree or disagree with my review of it?

It was the title of this book that first caught my attention. Then I spotted the cover art, which was enough to make me pick it up and read the blurb, which in turn was enough to make me buy the book.

Thomas Fool is the senior of Hell's three Information Men, a small group of detectives whose job mostly seems to be to be aware of - but not investigate - every atrocity committed in Hell, mostly by demons against humans. Every now and then they do receive a case their overseers, a group of demons called The Bureaucracy, want them to pay more attention to. A mutilated body is found that has had its soul completely removed - there usually remain some vestiges of it after death - and this is deemed worthy of investigation. Soon the bodies are piling up, bearing signs of ever more frenzied attacks, and Fool has to divide his time between the investigation and acting as a liaison and guide for a group of angels who have come to negotiate with Hell on various issues, including who gets to be Elevated: to leave Hell and ascend into Heaven.

There is nothing new about Hell as a kind of bureaucracy. Neither is Hell as a place of violence and horror a new idea, although each author presents it in a slightly different way. Even the idea that Hell should be a place where people have some hope, but not enough of it, has been around for a long time, because while no hope is a terrible thing, realists know that a glimmer of hope that keeps being thwarted is even worse. Unsworth has taken these three ideas of Hell and stitched them together into an image of what modern Hell might be like if it existed.

At the beginning of the story Fool doesn't really know what he is doing, as he has had no official training and only has an ancient handbook to rely on, so he blunders on, cluelessly searching for something to help move the investigation forward. But he soon begins gain confidence and to collect actual clues and then to follow a bloody trail that leads him into an unexpected direction — only it isn't as unexpected as all that, and in fact I suspected from early on - and knew with increasing certainty as the denouement drew closer - who/what he was looking for.

Unsworth's Hell is a terrible place, and I am sure it is supposed to be viscerally terrifying, but one can only read so much about grotesqueries, tortures and rot and about blood, guts, and excrement before it begins to get repetitive, even if the means of expelling them change and become more inventive and violent as the story winds on. Some of this seems to have no particular bearing on the plot, and to be included only because Why not?

The narrative escalates gradually into an orgy of violence and horror, and on the way it brings up searching questions about free will, hope, justice, salvation and the difference between good and evil that give one a pause for thought. It is well written and while the horrors stop being effective after a while, it is still interesting enough to keep one reading and would make an excellent Halloween read.

I am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Devil's Evidence, if only to see what Unsworth's ideas about Heaven are like.


Three more books for you if you like reading about hell as a bureaucracy - albeit none of them as detailed - as the above:
  • Terry Pratchett's Eric. Funny fantasy.
  • C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. Satirical and dark.
  • Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard. Funny urban fantasy that is even darker than The Devil's Detective.


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