The more modern noir I read, the more I often think that much of the best work in the genre revolves around a grip on its environment. James Ellroy and L.A.; Dennis Lehane and Boston; John Connolly and Maine; Raymond Chandler and California…the list goes on and on, but in almost every case, it’s hard to picture the stories working half as well without their world to draw off of, to be its own character in the complex story. And in the best noir, the environment is the story in no small part – for instance, look at how Ellroy draws off of the underside of L.A. to drive his sordid tales.
But rarely have I seen that idea used as effectively and powerfully as it is in The Devil’s Detective, a book whose setting is original, unforgettable, and inextricably linked to its characters, its plot, and its mood. Because its setting is Hell, and in that blasted, hopeless landscape, author Simon Kurt Unsworth crafts a piece of noir unlike just about anything else I’ve read.
Because, here’s the thing about Hell: how do you make a mystery set in Hell? How do you tell a story about a murder in a place where torment is constant, where torture is everywhere, where nightmares live and breathe and the entire point of existence is to live in regret and pain? And more than that, when an environment is shaped around a lack of hope, how can any crime ever be solved – because wouldn’t that offer hope and justice in a place defined by their absence?
Rather than dodge those questions, Unsworth bakes them into the DNA of his book, following Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men – a sinner himself – who finds himself doing something he’s never done before: actually investigating a crime. To be sure, this is an unusual crime – not only was a human murdered, but his soul was reaped from his body – but Fool’s investment in the crime, and his dedication to understanding it, feels like a slow, seismic shift in Hell. And his interest – his insistence that this soul matters, that even Hell must have rules – indeed changes everything around him, and throughout Hell. And that change becomes as much a part of the story as the investigation itself.
But, oh, that investigation. This is a labyrinthine case, make no mistake about it, and one that feels heavily indebted to Chandler and Hammett along the way; like those authors, Unsworth follows his detective through a slew of encounters with citizens from all over Hell, through seedy environments and upper class “suburbs” (of Hell), through high-level politics and through abused citizens. But Unsworth makes it all his own, giving us a Hell unlike any other that I’ve read – a Hell that has left behind the torture and nightmares of Dante and resembles nothing so much as a hopeless, bleak industrial society, an inner-city where brutality and violence are just part of the day-to-day life. And as Unsworth dives into the life of Hell and its occupants, his world continues to flesh out, and we start to see just how much his characters – and these crimes – are a function of this world, and not a recent addition. And once that link becomes clear, the story becomes richer, because it’s about more than just one crime – it’s about our hero, and about life in Hell, and about this bizarre, dark world that Unsworth has crafted for us.
Make no mistake, though: this is a dark world. Much of what makes Unsworth’s novel work is that he allows Hell to be every bit as nightmarish and disturbing as it should be. The demons are horrific, and their relationship with humans is brutal and upsetting. The violence is shocking and constant; the atmosphere bleak; the world unforgiving. And the cost is high, and that matters here, because as soon as you care about the world and have hope, it can be taken from you. And that’s the nature of Hell.
And yet, even with all of that, The Devil’s Detective never becomes nihilistic. Instead, it gives us a rich, compelling hero in Fool, who becomes a crusader for lost causes, a lone light in the darkness, and a hope in a world without it. That’s heady material, and makes Fool’s quest all the more engaging, and his development as a character all the more rewarding, as he finds himself becoming noticed by Hell…and then respected by Hell. It turns a noir detective something richer and more profound, and its constant evolution as a book only makes it work all the more.
In short? I loved this book, plain and simple. I loved its complicated, incredible world, and the astonishing array of characters. (I haven’t even touched on Unsworth’s most fascinating character, The Man of Plants and Flowers, who defies all characterization.) I loved its complex story, which uses the framework of a noir tale as a starting point and turns it into something wholly else. And I loved Fool, whose noble quest in the face of horrors becomes as gripping and important as solving the murder that starts it all. I loved the world, the story, the ideas, and the writing, and I can’t wait to see what else Unsworth has in him to come.