Book Review: The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth

“An ambitious yet accomplished piece of work.”

51ekYgHj4RL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Devil’s Detective is the debut novel from British genre stalwart Simon Kurt Unsworth. Unsworth has previously published three collections of short stories – Lost Places, the portmanteau piece Quiet Houses and Strange Gateways, which came out last year.

The novel is the story of Thomas Fool, one of Hell’s three Information Men (essentially Hell’s police officers), who is charged with investigating a murder that is heinous and vile, even by the standards of Hell. To make matters worse, Fool is also responsible for guarding a delegation from Heaven that are currently visiting to meet with Hell’s bureaucrats in order to negotiate the elevation of souls between Heaven and Hell.

Much as the title suggests, The Devil’s Detective is a horror riff on classic tropes of hard-boiled fiction. The book neatly straddles the bridge between horror fiction and crime, accumulating influences from both sides culminating in a horrific take on the police procedural.

The Devil’s Detective is a rich, layered book full of lyrical prose and cutting description. Unsworth’s work previously relied heavily on the characterisation of place; Quiet Houses was set in the area that the author lived and the places within the book were exceptionally well realised. The Devil’s Detective takes this theme much further and really shows not only Unsworth’s skill as a writer but also the progression in his work. The Hell Unsworth creates is deep and at times uncomfortably believable. Hell is essentially the worst parts of all of the worst cities you can think of added together. It is part slum, part gang territory, part red light district.

What sets Unsworth’s version of hell apart is the detail. Hell has its own class system, with humans firmly at the bottom of it existing solely to be used and abused by demons, Hell’s prominent citizens. Like all cities, Hell is blighted by bureaucracy. Fool must answer to Elderflower, his boss, who in turn must answer to the other, more powerful bureaucrats who call the shots in Hell. Think the Houses of Parliament, with even more hideous creatures.

Aside from the stellar world building on display, there are also a number of intriguing and well written characters. Fool himself is very well drawn as the centrepiece of the book. His insecurities, despair and his confusion over his previous life are translated well. He is a strong character and one that deserves to have further books written about him. Other subsidiary characters are painted broadly yet are no worse for this. The slippery bureaucrat Elderflower and half man, half plant character The Man are both excellent additions, as is Balthazar the surly, violent angel.

However, one of the main flaws in the book is the lack of development of Summer and Gordy, Fool’s colleagues in the Information Man team. Against all of the rules of Hell, the two strike up an illicit affair, sharing genuine affection in a world where only misery can be felt. The problem with this is that these characters are not developed enough for the reader to feel the full extent of the emotions that Unsworth wants to portray. The love story should have an air of doomed hope about it, however due to the relative lack of information about the two characters involved, there is an air of regret that this storyline doesn’t have as much emphasis as it should as they struggle to carve out happiness against the odds.

In contrast to the excellent world building, the whodunit element of the plot comes up a little short. The book has the feeling of the first in a series; the stakes are not high enough to draw the reader in entirely as there is not quite enough danger to the central protagonist. The resolution of the central murder was telegraphed strongly from the start and thus never wrong-footed the reader. That said, there is much to admire throughout the novel that the resolution of the whodunit element is not the be all and end all to the novel itself.

The Devil’s Detective is a strong, confident debut novel from Simon Kurt Unsworth. His prose is relentlessly grim, yet colourful and lyrical in its own way. Unsworth’s bleak novel is punctuated by dark humour and effusive, garish descriptions. His prose swaggers forward and carries the plot and the reader along with it. Unsworth’s work has shown a clear progression over the course of his career, culminating in this layered, fascinating first novel that will put readers firmly in mind of Clive Barker as they indulge in the gorgeous detail of Hell and all of its squalid denizens. The Devil’s Detective is an ambitious yet accomplished piece of work that will leave the reader not only wanting more Thomas Fool but hoping against hope that the reality of Hell isn’t anywhere near as bad as the version in Unsworth’s imagination.

DAN HOWARTH

Publisher: Del Ray
Hardback (368pp)
Release Date: 12 March 2015

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