The Devil’s Detective: Exquisite, excruciating literary horror

The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth horror book reviewsThe Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Thomas Fool is an Information Man in Hell. As an Information Man, he investigates cases of violence and death; and there are many. Thomas thinks he’s been in Hell about six years. Before that, his soul floated in the sea of Limbo that surrounds Hell, until it was pulled out by a demon and embodied in the human form he wears now. Fool, as he calls himself, does not know why he is in Hell or what he must atone for, because no human who is fished from Limbo and sent here remembers any part of their human lives. Through suffering, they are supposed to atone until, perhaps, they will be Elevated into heaven.

Simon Kurt Unsworth composes a convincing noir detective story in his debut novel, The Devil’s Detective, but his real achievements are the sense of dread and despair that fills the pages, and the geography of Hell, limned in exquisite prose. From the tunnel that leads, apparently, to Heaven, to the Assemblies Buildings where Fool’s demonic supervisor Elderflower works, and to the vast sea of Limbo, Hell is a real, and terrifying, geographical place.

As the book opens, Fool has been sent to escort a delegation from Heaven, as he done other times. The delegation bargains with Elderflower over the number of souls in Hell that will be Elevated. In addition to sitting in on the discussion, Fool and his team of two other Information Men (one is a woman) begin investigating a series of murders of humans, attacks that are brutal even by Hell’s standards.

When Balthazar, one of the angels, is offended that there is no lake of fire or bodies rent limb from limb, Elderflower takes a moment to educate him on the true nature of Hell:

They suffer the terrors of the approaching unknown, of ending without redemption or logic, and they know that they are powerless. But this is Hell, and there has to be worse than mere violence; the Sorrowful have something worse than no hope — they have some hope. Only a sliver, to be sure, only enough to make the terror that much worse…

And this is, indeed, the Hell where Fool and his two junior partners work; a place where food maintains life but is not wholesome, where demons predate on humans in all sorts of ways, where humans work daily in grimy factories but see no benefit themselves, where death is a constant, only a moment away. Through Fool we meet various demons, a strange being called the Man of Plants and Flowers, whose presence frightens the archdeacons of Hell, and get better acquainted with Balthasar and the leader of celestial delegation, an angel named Adam.

Unsworth is clearly familiar with detective books and follows the traditional plot faithfully. While there are a few missteps (the word “strings” gets used too often), Unsworth’s prose is disciplined and perfected pitched for this terrible place. Descriptions of places like the nursery of half-demon, half-human children, or The Man’s place of residence, stay with you after you’ve closed the book. The Man himself, part human and part plant — maybe? — is intriguing and frightening.

Branches came loose from the walls, wines snapping and flailing, hawsering through the air above Fool … Fragments of broken wood, chips or branch and twig and frond sprayed down on Fool, the Man’s limbs collapsing over him, burying him…

I don’t always read horror, but when I do, I want it to be like this. It is convincingly horrifying. Experienced mystery readers may identify the murderer, but that won’t spoil the reading experience. You can read this book solely as a dark, twisted work of imagination, and you could teach it in a Humanities class as an allegory for toxic capitalism. That’s not a stretch. The idea of the souls of hell having been “shriven,” as Elderflower puts it, yet still tortured because that’s the “system,” is a powerful symbol for any political or economic model that requires someone be at the bottom in order to work.  I don’t want to get into a rant; even if you’re a Fortune 500 CEO, if you like deep, psychological horror that haunts you, you’ll like this book. The Devil’s Detective is the first book on my Best of 2015 List.

Devil — (2015-2016) Thomas Fool is an Information Man, an investigator tasked with cataloging and filing reports on the endless stream of violence and brutality that flows through Hell. His job holds no reward or satisfaction, because Hell has rules but no justice. Each new crime is stamped “Do Not Investigate” and dutifully filed away in the depths of the Bureaucracy. But when an important political delegation arrives and a human is found murdered in a horrific manner—extravagant even by Hell’s standards—everything changes. The murders escalate, and their severity points to the kind of killer not seen for many generations. Something is challenging the rules and order of Hell, so the Bureaucracy sends Fool to identify and track down the killer. . . . But how do you investigate murder in a place where death is common currency? Or when your main suspect pool is a legion of demons? With no memory of his past and only an irresistible need for justice, Fool will piece together clues and follow a trail that leads directly into the heart of a dark and chaotic conspiracy. A revolution is brewing in Hell . . . and nothing is what it seems. The Devil’s Detective is an audacious, highly suspenseful thriller set against a nightmarish and wildly vivid world. Simon Kurt Unsworth has created a phantasmagoric thrill ride filled with stunning set pieces and characters that spring from our deepest nightmares. It will have readers of both thrillers and horror hanging on by their fingernails until the final word. In Hell, hope is your worst enemy.


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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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2 comments

  1. Excellent review, Marion! You’ve convinced me that I need to read this book. (Not that it would have taken much, I was sold at “noir detective story in Hell,” but you make it sound really interesting!)

  2. This sounds very interesting.

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