Readers often get excited about the setting of a crime novel, but where better to set such a story than in hell itself? That’s where Simon Kurt Unsworth sets his appropriately titled The Devil’s Detective.
The protagonist is a man named Thomas Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men, kind of like a detective with very little power. Like all of hell’s human inhabitants, he’s a sinner, damned to hell for sins he cannot recall. Hell’s human inhabitants are at the bottom of the pecking order, prey to all manner of iniquities at the hands of demons; but this isn’t hell as told in the Bible, there is very little of the burning in lakes of fire, though we are told that this used to be the case. Rather hell keeps changing, to prevent life from becoming predictable, it’s current incarnation a form of psychological torture combining grinding, mind-numbing poverty and semi-starvation, with just the slightest hope.
Not that hell has totally turned it’s back on more traditional torture and Unsworth’s tale is at it’s strongest and most shocking when detailing some of the more demonic terrors. Without giving too much away, there’s one scene in an orphanage for horrific demon/human hybrid children, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it kept me awake at night and will stay in my memory for a very long time to come.
The plot, in a nutshell, is that there’s a murder. A human has been torn to pieces, his soul completely missing. Unsurprisingly, most crimes against humans in hell are either not investigated at all or the investigation by the Information Men leads nowhere. Fool speculates that for the soul to be completely consumed, the demon that committed this crime must be very powerful indeed. He expects to be told by his superiors to leave it alone. But to his surprise, they actively encourage him to pursue his investigations.
Where the author falls down a little bit is the exact nature of the Information Men, how they fit into hell’s hierarchy. It’s not absolutely clear or convincing. But that is a tiny quibble in a book that I found otherwise bold and original. This is a brilliant segue of traditional detective fiction and supernatural horror and my only real gripe is that it is hard to imagine a sequel
I would give this book 5 out of 5 stars.