That story came back to me as I was reading The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth. It’s a compelling, powerful novel, but reader beware, because it’s very strong stuff. What else can you expect from a book set in Hell?
The Devil’s Detective is the story of Simon Fool, one of three Information Men working in Hell. The job of an Information Man is rather like that of a detective, except that in Hell nobody really expects justice, or anything remotely like it. A series of murders, grisly even by Hell’s standards begins to change all of that. Two angels are visiting at the time, Adam and Balthazar, and are in a series of bureaucratic negotiations with Elderflower, a high ranking dignitary from Hell, and Fool’s superior. They all play pivotal roles in the book, along with the two other Information Men, Summer, and her lover, Geordie. They are all well-drawn characters, and are all, to an extent, sympathetic. This is Fool’s novel, though, and as the plot unfolds we watch him slowly coming to understand his job, and what he can accomplish even in a place as bad as Hell.
Mr. Unsworth is almost scarily imaginative (once again, appropriate for a book set in Hell), and his vision of Hell and its inhabitants, particularly one called The Man of Plants and Flowers, is startling and original. The brutality of the book, though, and its dark tone take some getting used to. Early on, I felt like the darkness was going to overwhelm me, but if you hang in there, the payoff is very worth it.
I am not over-exaggerating here. Some of the scenes, and not just of the murders, are stunningly brutal. Mr. Unsworth’s endless innovation, and his care and compassion for the story and its characters are like a beacon, shining in the darkness. At first the light is dim, but by halfway through this novel I was hooked. For a series of murders to be brutal by even the standards of Hell was a tall order, but Mr. Unsworth pulls it off. The results are disturbing and often bloody and grotesque, but Fool’s humanity, his humility and perseverance show that a little bit of justice can be achieved, even in Hell.
Watching Fool track down the killer is a taut and intelligent mystery, but even if it wasn’t the book would be exceptional for its backdrop. In my reading life I have come across a lot of Hells, but Mr. Unsworth’s is right up there at the top. I have to give it Mr. Unsworth. He has written one of the best books that I have read in a while, and he it’s all about Hell.