THE DEVIL’S DETECTIVE by Simon Kurt Unsworth

28 the devil's detectiveOne of my favorite short stories is “Murder Mysteries,” by Neil Gaiman. It is, like a title says, a murder mystery, told in the same manner and style as countless murder mysteries before it. But it is unique in the sense that it is set in Heaven, where an angel is tasked with finding out the culprit behind Creation’s very first murder (or “Wrong Thing,” as it is called in the story, because there is no word for this particular cruel act among the Heavenly Host). It is a favorite not only because the conceit is exceedingly clever, but because the world (for a lack of a better word) it creates is just as ingenious and fascinating. Heaven is an actual city, gleaming and perfect. Its citizens, the angels — equally gleaming and perfect — are portrayed as workers, defined by their roles. The whole of Creation is being constructed inside a factory-like building, aspects of it discussed and decided by committee and delegated to teams of ethereal employees. It allows Gaiman play with the conventions of the gritty genre while still writing about shining, perfect beings. Seeing writers play around like that in stories is always fun.⠀

It’s a story I was reminded of countless times while making my way through The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth. In many ways it reads like a distorted, perverse reflection of Gaiman’s seraphic murder mystery. And Upside Down version, as it were. Which is nothing if not appropriate, I think: as above, so below, and so forth.⠀

In The Devil’s Detective Hell also takes the form of a city, one populated by humans and demons alike. The former are given bleak tasks and roles to perform, while the latter, predictably, torture and torment them. It is a dreadful place, although not in the way you might initially imagine it. Because Unsworth has wrought a version of Hell that represents the scariest thing he could possible conceive: a bottomless pit of bureaucracy. Hell’s “operations” are overseen by a board of demons, with most of their work being relegated through a middleman, even. There are bars and brothels; offices and housing complexes. Trains and cabs are used to get around. The modern world as the underworld — or vice versa. There are even detectives, a thankless job in Hell if there ever was one.⠀

This novel follows such a person, our unfortunately named protagonist Thomas Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men, the infernal analogue to the sleuthing occupation.⠀

Hell is hosting angels, there to attend a slew of meetings where the parties of both Heaven and Hell perform a long-established practice of trading souls. The arrival of these heavenly beings coincides with a string of particularly horrific murders. Something is killing the humans of Hell, in a manner so gruesome that their very souls are released forcibly from their bodies, manifesting in a blinding blue light that dissipates in the accursed atmosphere. An atrocity that Fool and his team are sent to investigate.

(In Unsworth’s Hell, those condemned to it are reincarnated into a new body, carrying no knowledge of their previous life other than they have sinned and are now paying for it. It makes sense in a sadistic sort of way: how much more oppressive would Hell’s suffering feel were you still alive, after all?)⠀

Author Michael Chabon once said that detectives are great protagonists in mysteries because they have inherent access to every layer of society, from the proletariat to the elite. They can knock on any door. In gritty murder mysteries, these sleuthhounds often act as our guide through the more disreputable side of life. The Virgil to our Dante. In The Devil’s Detective, Fool gets to fill both roles of The Divine Comedy. He is the guide through this strange, twisted world, sure, but he himself is dragged along a journey through circles of Hell he never even fathomed.⠀

I’m focusing on the worldbuilding because it is this book’s strongest aspect. Unsworth writes a very vivid, markedly macabre setting and does a great job establishing a some semblance of logic to an inherently illogical place. There are rules in Hell, Fool repeatedly states throughout the story, they may make no sense, and they may get broken constantly, but there are rules just the same. It’s an engaging environment, and the sections where Fool just explores different districts of the city, searching for clues and answers, talking with characters of varying shapes and forms (the most curious of which being the Man of Plants and Flowers, a former human who has somehow transformed himself into, well, flowers and plants, and has spread himself throughout the city), were the ones that interested me the most. The world piqued my morbid curiosity, and I wanted to know more. It’s a rich backdrop, one that should easily lend itself to strong, solid plots.⠀

Which makes it that much more of shame that we don’t exactly get one here. There’s enough to maintain your interest throughout the book’s four hundred and so pages, but the mystery at the center of it all is a little lacking. I suppose it’s maybe because I’m not the most perceptive of readers, but one of the reasons I enjoy mystery stories so much is that I hardly ever figure them out before they are done, and I love being pleasantly surprised. I figured out the who-and-whydunit in The Devil’s Detective a couple chapters in, which meant that I read the rest of the book hoping that I was wrong because it seemed so obvious. It didn’t help that the resolution came accompanied with a lackluster final confrontation, in which our main character spends a lot of time being disoriented to the point of not being able to properly tell what is going on around him. The ending proper just sort of peters out, leaving the characters and the story hanging off the proverbial cliff, awaiting a second book to continue their tale. It was a little underwhelming, to say the least. ⠀

Still, I appreciated the excellent worldbuilding, and also the way the novel explores its central theme, which revolves around hope.⠀

At the beginning of the story, Fool receives a feather from the wings of one of the angels. The feather gives off a bright glow that never dulls, and gives Fool comfort and clarity. He keeps it close to him for the remainder of the story, embracing its light in moments of difficulty and distress. Hope is the thing with feathers, etc. ⠀

Hope is a double-edged sword in the world of The Devil’s Detective. At several points in the novel Fool bemoans the futility of it all. Why bother investigating horrific acts in Hell, when Hell will never cease to be a place in which horrific acts are the norm? Why bother standing outside the building in which the meetings between Heaven and Hell are held, waiting to become one of the souls chosen to be freed from torment? Fool is told plainly at one point that Hell lets its humans have some semblance of hope because it makes the ensuing torment that much more terrible. Shades of Gaiman, again: In an issue of The Sandman where protagonist Dream visits that universe’s version of Hell, Lucifer asks him what can hope serve in such a place. To which Dream replies, “What power would Hell have if those imprisoned here would not be able to dream of Heaven?” Why bother with anything at all?⠀

But hope also begets change. The feather acts as a catalyst for Fool. Against his better judgement, he starts to imagine a different way of life in Hell. He begins to feel hope. And the condemned humans, inspired by his acts, follow suit.⠀

And so The Devil’s Detective ends with change, both with Fool as a person and Hell as place, a change that happened because Fool and the people of Hell, despite their cruel circumstances, chose to go on, in the hopes that things will, eventually, get better. Which is all any of us can do, in the end, whether we’re living through hell or not. A fool’s hope indeed.