When they arrive in Hell, the angels are disappointed. Where are the lakes of fire? Where are the torments? In Simon Unsworth’s The Devil’s Detective, Hell has become a more subtle place. The delegation of angels that arrive at the beginning of the book are told that the new punishments are all the worse because they rest on the slim hope the damned have of maybe, one day, getting released. The system is arbitrary. No one knows what they’re being punished for. A special punishment seems to have been reserved for Thomas Fool, one of Hell’s Information Man. Just as the angelic delegation arrives, Fool is also told to investigate a series of murders even more savage than usual. How is this sort-of cop supposed to mete out justice in Hell?
Unsworth rebuilds the afterlife in The Devil’s Detective. Souls are fished (literally) out of Limbo and assigned roles in Hell. They are laborers, prostitutes, farmers, and so on. A rare few are assigned as Information Men. Most of the cases they receive are not investigated. Fool even has a stamp marked DNI for Did Not Investigate. It’s unusual to get a case that has to be investigated. Meanwhile, Fool is an escort for a quartet of angels who’ve arrived in Hell to haggle over how many souls will make it into Heaven this go-round.
As Fool learns how to be a real detective, he only has his gun and a feather given to him by an angel to assist him. He has to work his way through the truly nasty denizens of Hell and the damned and comes close to his own death more than once. Every where he turns, Fool is told that he amuses the higher ups of Hell. He entertains them, but Fool is never told exactly why. He can feel himself changing and Hell changing around him as he digs deeper. Is he becoming the hero everyone says he is? Is he atoning for his own forgotten sins? Like all great reads (by my lights), The Devil’s Detective asks more questions than it answers.
As I read, I wanted to read The Devil’s Detective metaphorically as well as reading it as just a thriller. Does Fool represent humans? With a name like Fool and having angels and demons talking into his ears all this time, it’s hard not to read this book as an elaborate metaphor for how humans twist themselves up with guilt and redemption and the possibility of an afterlife. Fool tells us something about Hell’s past as he tries to explain the strangeness of Hell to the heavenly visitors. There used to be lakes of fire and all the traditional Dantean tortures. But Hell has become existentialist. The damned worry about what it was they did to arrive here. They hold out hope that they can do something to better their lot. Hell is changing again as humans start to fight back against the demons with signs bearing the slogan, “We Deserve Better.”
The Devil’s Detective hits all the right notes for me. The characters are marvellously complex and well-drawn. The setting is absolutely stellar. Unsworth uses the premise of Hell and Heaven and Limbo and runs with them to create something original and terrifying. The plot contains hints about the larger mystery in the background of Fool’s murder investigation. And the ending is surprising and satisfying all at the same time.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 3 March 2015.