Department Zero: Nifty mashup of humor and Lovecraft

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Department Zero by Paul Crilley is a neat mashup of humor and horror, of interdimensional fantasy and Lovecraft. First person narrator Harry Priest has a lively voice and a lot to learn when his life gets turned upside down after one really bad day at work. If you like acerbic British humor and the Old Ones of H.P. Lovecraft, this is a book for you.

Priest is a crime-scene cleaner in Los Angeles. He is separated from his wife and daughter, and bitter about it. Priest hates everything about his life and takes no responsibility for anything that has gone wrong in it. Then he and the boss’s son go to a scene of carnage at a motel. Soon Priest is encountering wizened, Shakespeare-spouting monkeys, fleeing from monsters made of spiders, and fighting off people wearing strange bone masks, people who definitely aren’t from around here. Eventually, he is conscripted into the Interstitial Crime Division, specifically the Disposal Department for Interstitial Crime Scenes — just don’t call them “Dicks.” And right after that he and his new partners uncover a multi-world plot to awaken sleeping Cthuhlu.

Here are some of the things I liked about Department Zero. As I mentioned, I enjoyed the narrator’s tone throughout the book. I loved the way the book tilts from humor to seriousness and back. One of my favorite scenes is when Priest has been captured by alternate-world Martian-worshipping Nazis and is about to be drained of blood by their cult (to awaken a decades-dead Martian). Even though he’s hanging in midair about to be exsanguinated, Priest still manages to heckle the cultists. The story rolls through two or three “other world” scenarios before it comes to a classic epic-fantasy world, and when Priest and his mentor Havelock Graves travel with the barge clans, the language becomes more contemplative. There are some beautiful descriptions, and near the end of the book Crilly manages to pull off, if not exactly Lovecraft, at least Lovecraft-lite, in a convincing manner.

Nyarlathotep, the villain, is a servant of the Old Ones, centuries if not millennia old, and he talks like he couldn’t afford a Tony Robbins inspirational-speaking course so he took a cut-rate knock-off one. He is hilarious and disgustingly realistic. You have met this man somewhere in your life, if not at some mandatory seminar, then behind you in line for coffee. I guarantee it, and Crilley nails the tone.

I enjoyed watching Priest grow and come to some realizations about the state of his life and how it might have gotten there. I love the relationship with his daughter Susan. In the early part of Department Zero he makes comments about Los Angeles that are pure L.A. I liked this set-up and the whimsy of the DDICS office, deep underground in a tower in the middle of a maze. I enjoyed the character of Ash, who mediates between Havelock Graves and Priest in the first half of the book before Crilley sidelines her about halfway through the book.

I liked the use of Lovecraftian tropes. At first they play for humor but in the second half of the book they become a serious threat with an interesting interpretation of the whole Old Ones/Elder Gods relationship.

Graves was not a completely successful character for me. He is from another world, not ours, so is supposed to be different, but he never felt consistent. His motivation — he has been demoted from being a detective and wants his old job back — is believable, but his competence and his opinions fluctuated depending upon the needs of the plot.

I thought the plot of Department Zero itself wobbled in a couple of places. There is no reason why Priest and his partner would have ended up at the dreadful crime scene in the motel, and even though Crilly spends a sentence or two trying to it, that explanation doesn’t work unless the scene is a set-up, and it doesn’t appear to be. Later, still more people try to kill Priest and Graves. This might be because Nyarlathotep’s real plan is more terrifying than we first imagined and needs to be kept quiet for security reasons, but suddenly at the end there is no longer any urgency to kill them, even though it would be perfectly easy to do so and blame their deaths on the aftermath of the final battle. It felt more like Crilley wanted more tension and danger in the middle, and then hand-waved it away at the end.

I loved Priest’s relationship with his daughter and the way he reads to her, over the phone, every night, and their little good-night ritual, but I felt we read the entire call-and-response too many times. Twice would have been enough to make the point.

Overall, I liked more than I didn’t here. Warning: when Crilley does gross and disgusting, he does it very well, so Department Zero might not be a book to read over lunch. I’m speaking from personal experience here. This world is fun, the language is fun, and I look forward to more adventures from the DDICS. Just don’t call them “dicks.”

January 24, 2017. THE END OF THE UNIVERSE IS ONLY A HOP, SKIP, AND SLIGHT STUMBLE-THROUGH-A-WORMHOLE AWAY. Harry Priest just wants to make sure his ex-wife doesn’t take away his visitation rights, and his dead-end job cleaning up crime scenes for the past ten years isn’t doing him any favors. But when Harry attends what he thinks is a routine death, he stumbles onto a secret multiverse of alternate realities all reachable through universe-hopping gates. Policing these worlds is Havelock Graves, the Interstitial Crime Department’s top agent for ten years running (according to him).  When Harry accidentally messes with the ICD crime scene, Graves and his team are demoted as low as they can go: Department Zero. They’re recruiting Harry too—not because he charmed them, but because he just might hold the key to saving the universe . . . and getting their old jobs back. To do this, Graves and his team set out to solve the crime that lost them their jobs.  A crime that involves a cult planning to hunt down and steal the fabled Spear of Destiny in order to free the Great Old One Cthulhu from his endless sleep in the Dreamlands. (Because that’s another thing Harry soon finds out. Everything H. P. Lovecraft wrote is true. Like, everything.) The team will have to fight its way through realities filled with Martian technology and evade mad priests (Harry’s favorite kind) in a realm of floating landmasses where magic really exists. And Harry has to do it all in time to say good night to his daughter.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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2 comments

  1. This would never usually be the kind of book I’d pick up – gross and disgusting not being high on my preference list – but this sounds interesting

    • It was pretty fun. There is a gross section near the beginning and another one closer to the end, but at the very end he goes more for the weird; right angles that aren’t, well, “right,” directions that shift with no warning, lettering that squirms as you’re trying to read it, etc. I think you’d enjoy it.

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