Sartre famously wrote that Hell is other people. For many fantasy writers, though, it's a bureaucracy. In fact, the whole Hell-as-bureaucracy theme has become hackneyed over the years — as much of a cliché as, well, bureaucracies being hellish.
In his novel The Devil's Detective, debut author Simon Kurt Unsworth isn't trying to reinvent the inverted pentagram. As with so many stories of its kind, The Devil's Detective paints Hell as a very real place. It's also structured as a very real bureaucracy, complete with coffee-sipping pencil-pushers, petty officials, and an arbitrary tangle of rules and regulations that offset all the demons and despair. But Unsworth pushes the boundaries of this well-worn fantasy formula — not always in a satisfying way — by stuffing in another genre entirely: noir.
The book begins, as so many noirs do, with a body: As it turns out, the souls of the damned are reborn in new bodies when they get to Hell, all to make their torment that much more visceral. And now one of these new humans has been found murdered, tortured, its damned soul torn free. Thomas Fool — who, like all damned humans, doesn't remember his life on Earth — is sent to do the paperwork.
Fool is an Information Man, one of only a handful to hold such a title in Hell. The title is an ironic one. It's his job to rubberstamp all murder cases as "Do Not Investigate;" information is the last thing he's expected to find. But after a recent job-related encounter with two angels, Fool finds himself with the inexplicable urge to break the precious bureaucratic rules he's bound by, in order to do the unthinkable: Try to solve the crime.
At first, The Devil's Detective grips. Unsworth's storytelling is taut and lean, avoiding any lapses into potboiler. Fool's investigation becomes increasingly complicated as the bodies of strangers, enemies, and colleagues pile up around him. But that complication quickly turns into quagmire. Fool ends up a virtual tour guide for the reader, stopping often to have lengthy conversations with other denizens of Hell about details of their infernal existence that read like awkward information dumps.
Those details are intriguing at first. Angels aren't able to fly in Hell; Information Men are the only ones allowed to carry guns; a complex system of salvation seems to be at work. But before long, the story gets swamped in trivia about Unsworth's vision of Hades, little of it being particularly fresh. At one point, Fool literally does become a tour guide, and though he curses this new task he's been entrusted with, that bit of meta-awareness isn't enough to make his exposition-laden chats less tedious.
Give Unsworth credit for one thing: When he writes about Hell, he makes it downright hellish. He devotes lengthy passages to describing mutilated corpses, excruciating suffering, scatological torment, and demonic atrocities, some on a mass scale that staggers the senses. "[Elder demons] were thought to be grotesque," he writes, "but in a world of grotesqueries, how could [Fool] tell the difference?"
That also neatly sums up a large problem with The Devil's Detective: It's such an unrelenting onslaught of heinousness, it becomes numbing. The book eventually spins all this admittedly sumptuous horror into thought-provoking notions about salvation, hope, and free will, but they're dismissed with a twist ending that feels glib at best, cheap at worst. Even the bleakest portrait of Hell should have a broader dynamic to it, whether it's satirical, philosophical, poetic, or simply poignant. The Devil's Detective inches in each of those directions, but it's not enough to liven up such a monotone outing.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club and author of the novel Taft 2012.
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