I read a lot of books, enough to know how rarely something truly original comes along. This book, first in an apparent series, is something truly original. I read it, left it aside for a few months and read it again. It still resonates because it's remarkably deep and insightful for something that initially seems to be only a gimmick. I could throw out a catchy hook like 'CSI: Hell' and there is validity to that, but it fails to scratch the surface of what Simon Kurt Unsworth has conjured up here.
Yes, we are in Hell, the literal Hell, where demons torment sinners but, as we soon find out, there's 'little real evil left' and what there is has secluded itself. That's not to say that it's a nice place. It isn't and we're gradually introduced to more and more reasons why, from the Genevieves to the Aruhlians. The former are sexual playthings for demons and there's a hospital for those who get played with a little too roughly. The latter are the farmers of Hell; they literally eat the earth and excrete it back out, thus fertilising it. Most of all though, it's literally an almost but not quite hopeless place and that tiny little spark of hope is the worst of it because it keeps the population of Hell believing that they can endure the horror and make it out, in one of these lifetimes.
And, in the midst of this is our protagonist, a man named Thomas Fool, thus neatly suggesting that what is to come is merely tomfoolery. He's an Information Man, one of three in Hell and one more little cog in that hope machine. He's a sort of policeman, tasked with investigating murders. Of course, this is Hell, so there are many murders; most will go uninvestigated and fewer will be solved, not just because there are too few investigators who aren't trained and have too little support, equipment or backup to do their jobs well, but because it really is the point. There is justice in Hell, just not a heck of a lot of it. The Information Men are another reminder that torment isn't all-encompassing and that things like truth, justice and hope do exist.
We join Fool's story at the point he's put onto escort duty. One of the key slivers of hope for the denizens of Hell is the possibility of being elevated, literally raised into Heaven. Every now and then, Heaven sends a couple of angels down to Hell to engage in negotiations as to who and how many will rise. Fool escorts a new delegation to the meeting and, in doing so, ends up with an unexpected gift: a feather, plucked from the wing of a petulant angel named Balthazar. This gift has resonance, triggering a butterfly effect which quietly drives the entire story, even though Fool becomes literally the face of a movement after the news of his facing down a demon spreads like wildfire and exaggerates with each telling.
I adored this framework. Because we're focused on Fool, who does his job even though he doesn't really know how or why, this feels rather like a Raymond Chandler film noir Hell. I was reminded often of 'The Big Sleep', because Philip Marlowe didn't neatly solve his case like any number of fictional detectives or private investigators would; he just shook things up wherever he went until a new direction forward fell out of the wreckage and, eventually, things came to what seemed to be a conclusion. Here, Fool does solve his case, of a number of strange murders in which the souls of the victims are apparently eaten, but that only triggers more story, because the solution isn't a conclusion and the story has become bigger than the case anyway.
If Fool feels like a Chandler-esque detective, that's backed up by his office, in which his cases arrive in the form of coloured canisters sent to him through vacuum tubes, and his only weapon, which is a gun, a rare item in Hell where there are only three, one each for the three Information Men.
However, Hell looks nothing like Los Angeles, however shocking that may be to the population of the city of Angels. Unsworth has untold aeons shape it into 'quarters', though there aren't just four of them. Each has its own feel and tone, not to mention its own dangers; nowhere in Hell is safe, initially for the human population but later, as the legend of Thomas Fool escalates, for the demon population too. It's a fantastic idea of Unsworth's to throw us into this unchanging landscape at a time when it's changing, in ways that make everyone nervous.
This is also reflected in the characters. There's a hierarchy: old and powerful demons, such as Rhakshasas and his Archdeacons of Hell; regular demons, who actively prey on people; and regular humans, suffering through their allotted jobs until they die and shift off to limbo, probably to return to repeat the cycle, but always with that small hope that something will change and they'll be raised up to Heaven. However, one of the subplots concerns itself with an anomaly, the Man of Plants and Flowers, who has discovered a way to transform himself through merging with the plantlife of Hell and spreading across its landscape.
It's also reflected in the apparent genre. This is not an easy novel to classify. Anchor Books are marketing it as 'crime fiction', which does make sense, but any exploration of crime unfolds within a palpable work of fantasy. There are scenes here easily as horrific as most horror novels can conjure up, not only because that's the natural genre for demons who walk around cloaked in darkness or fire but because Unsworth is not unwilling to go that extra step to deepen our understanding of what Hell means, namely to be as near to hopeless as possible without actually getting there. The scene at the orphanage springs immediately to mind; orphanages exist in Hell to cater for the offspring of human women impregnated by incubi, namely part-human, part-demon and 'wholly monstrous'.
I'm a horror fan and have been for almost four decades; I've looked long and hard for something that has a viable vision of Hell and I've never found it until now. I find it odd that, when such a creature finally arrived, it manifested itself as crime not horror, but it's really both. Something this original has little concern with fitting within a neatly defined box, after all. This can easily be read as a crime novel; simply follow Fool's investigations and attempt to figure out the killer before he does. It can also be read as a horror novel, a dip into true degradation and despair, with fascinating characters to keep us busy.
However, it works best as a theological experiment to define what Hell would really be like and how it might function. Unsworth maintains many of the traditional elements, but evolves them from their mediaeval origins to something that has a bite even for our jaded 21st-century palates. I was fascinated by this experiment and how it builds from a very simple central purpose to such a complex environment. It's incredible world building, without ever losing sight of a central story to keep our attention as it happens.
And, while Unsworth focuses primarily on Hell, he's very aware that by defining Hell, he's also defining part of the nature of its creator. God doesn't appear in this novel in person but he's inherently part of it through his absence, somewhat like a negative image. One common argument for the non-existence of God is that people suffer; why would an ever-loving God let that happen? Try to transfer that discussion to Hell, where people suffer in full knowledge that God exists and is well-aware of their torment but isn't doing anything about it. Perhaps Unsworth's cleverest trick is to have these sufferers aware that they're sinners but entirely unaware of their sins, shorn of all earthly memories.
Having read this twice, I'm eager to dive into the second book of Thomas Fool, 'The Devil's Evidence'. It will have to do a great deal to top this one and it has an ambitious goal indeed, to define Heaven the way this book defined Hell. I'll review it next month and also seek out some of Unsworth's other work, such as the short story collections, 'Lost Places' and 'Quiet Houses'. He's not just lucid and literate but apparently highly diverse and, more than anything, interested. It appears that he has a thirst to write what he can't read because nobody else has written it yet and, if there's a truer drive for a writer to follow, I'm entirely unaware of what that could be. ~~ Hal C F Astell