The Devil’s Detective – Simon Kurt Unsworth

A while back, I spotted this book on the Bestsellers shelf in WHSmiths. I had to say it instantly caught my eye for a number of reasons, but ultimately, despite a great deal of back-and-forthing, I ended up leaving it on the shelf and continued on my way.

This was quite possibly the biggest mistake that I had made in a long time. For the next two weeks, I could think of nothing other than this book. The plot had, to me at least, seemed so ingenious…

One of Hell’s detectives (referred to in the book as Information Men) moves in and out of the many varied landscapes of Hell in an attempt to find the mysterious killer who is systematically disposing of mortals and eating their souls. It sounds pretty gruesome and, in that respect, it is more of a gothic novel rather than a crime story. However, there were several aspects of it that kept my mind racing.

The central idea itself was captivating to say the least. The idea of having a detective force investigating murders when everyone in Hell has done something wrong and is therefore a potential suspect kept my mind racing day and night.

Needless to say, I took advantage of a brief trip to Portugal recently to acquire the book and I can honestly say that I struggled to put it down. Everything from the location and the main plot to the characters and sub-plots were masterfully woven together and kept me captivated from the start.

Chief amongst the traits of this story was the central character, Thomas Fool. Beyond the obvious characterisation displayed by his name, the author creates a fantastic character that completely defies the typical detective role that we see so often. Fool is not an experienced detective with a strong desire to bring a murderous killer to justice; he is more of a man who doesn’t know how to be a detective but has been assigned to be one because the higher-ups of Hell’s society think that it will be amusing. Such a disinterested character runs the risk of seeming distant and boring to a reader, but Unsworth hits the spot just right.

The world that he builds around Fool is both engaging and terrifyingly real. With demons and mortals living together in a brutal form of harmony, I found myself sharing Fool’s neutrality as he is forced to shift through dozens of murder reports every day to determine which are worth following up. In fact, the only major factor missing from Unsworth’s world is a clear Devil character, who is only mentioned in passing a couple of times in the book. However, his construction of Hell feels so real that you don’t even notice this, and I think quite rightly so… After all, in how many British crime stories does the lead detective spend time discussing the Queen?

I won’t say anymore because I don’t want to ruin it for you but, needless to say, I thoroughly recommend this book, particularly if you have a taste in crime fiction and especially if you veer towards that which is more gothic in nature. However, if you’re up for something more upbeat and humorous, or the question of Hell and what it is like is something you’d rather avoid, I don’t think I need to tell you that you’d be Fool-ish to go with this one.

For me, however, this is hands down a Five Star story if ever I read one. Thoroughly enjoyable and deliciously dark.

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