The Devil's Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth

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The Devil's Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth

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Category: Horror
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Sam Tyler
Reviewed by Sam Tyler
Summary: In Hell, life is cheap and murder comes easy. Being the fool in charge of solving these crimes is no easy task so in most cases Thomas Fool does not even bother to try. That is until one death captures the interest of those high up and those who have fallen. Join Fool on a bleak murder mystery in a land of tortured souls.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 368 Date: March 2015
Publisher: Del Rey
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780091956516

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There are some obvious things in life (and death), but one of the most clear is that Hell will be Hellish. This is a place that sinners go to be punished. However, for every Dante’s Inferno, there is a depiction of hell that is not so bad. Who really wants to read something depressing about the desolation of souls, apart from those pesky 14th Century types? According to The Devil’s Detective, people in the 21st Century do too.

Thomas Fool is one of the many humans who works in hell. These are the people who have been fished out of the lake of despair and put to work by their demon masters. Some are farmers, slaves, some are even prostitutes. Therefore, being one of Hell’s Information Men is not the worst job that Fool could have been given. His job is to investigate murders in a land where the act is common. The norm is for him to write the deaths off, until a case in which a victim’s soul is sucked dry. All of a sudden all of human and demon kind are looking to Fool for the answers.

Describing an undead world is a complex thing; do you build upon the mythologies that already exist, or create your own? Unsworth has done a mixture of the two. His Hell is an evolving one which mirrors what is happening on the surface. Therefore, Fool lives in a land of petty bureaucracy and easy violence, built on the classic structure of Dante. I understand that Hell is not meant to be nice, but at times Unsworth paints it far too vividly. There may be a truth in describing the rape of human soul, but I am not sure that is makes for enjoyable reading. At times Devil’s Detective is macabre and unpleasant to read. Never a great thing when you are sat on the bus.

Creating an underworld that is a modern Inferno is a valid choice by Unsworth that you cannot be overly critical of. However, you can be a little more judgemental with issues of place, pacing and narrative. We are introduced to an entire land in this book that is complex and changing, but Unsworth is unable to create a cohesive vision as to what Hell looks and feels like. Each section of the land is closed off from the other; this is a clunky way of separating the various story elements he wants to tell. I prefer my fantasy locations to flow into one another like a real city, rather than a series of walled townships.

In terms of pacing and narrative, the issues all stem from the fact that the book is not just fantasy, but also crime (otherwise why call the book The Devil’s Detective?) The crime element of the book is poor, in part due to the fantasy. The fantastical bent means that there is no reason to have a coherent solution or motive as Unsworth can simply claim that it is the way of hell. For the investigation to work there needed to be more suspects or a smaller scope in terms of the crime. As it happens, I was able to work out the murderer and their motives less than halfway through the book.

Despite there being issues with Devil’s Detective, it also has some redeeming features. Although compartmentalised, the various areas of Hell are interestingly described. There are also a few action set pieces that are riotous fun (in one case, pertaining to an actual riot). However, these elements are unable to lift a book that is confused in places and unpleasant in others. Fans of dark fantasy have been known to like death and destruction, but you will be surprised how light these books can be as humour is often used to offset the bleakness. ‘Devil’s Detective’ has little humour and for that reason remains hard to like.

If you are looking for another book on the undead, The Remaining by D J Molles is part of a good series. For fans of dark worlds, then try a master of the genre; Mister B Gone by Clive Barker.

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