Debut novelist Simon Kurt Unsworth sends the detective novel to Hell. In The Devil's Detective, a sea change is coming to Hell . . . and a man named Thomas Fool is caught in the middle.
Thomas Fool is an Information Man, an investigator tasked with cataloging and filing reports on the endless stream of violence and brutality that flows through Hell. His job holds no reward or satisfaction, because Hell has rules but no justice. Each new crime is stamped "Do Not Investigate" and dutifully filed away in the depths of the Bureaucracy. But when an important political delegation arrives and a human is found murdered in a horrific manner—extravagant even by Hell's standards—everything changes. The murders escalate, and their severity points to the kind of killer not seen for many generations. Something is challenging the rules and order of Hell, so the Bureaucracy sends Fool to identify and track down the killer. . . . But how do you investigate murder in a place where death is common currency? Or when your main suspect pool is a legion of demons? With no memory of his past and only an irresistible need for justice, Fool will piece together clues and follow a trail that leads directly into the heart of a dark and chaotic conspiracy. A revolution is brewing in Hell . . . and nothing is what it seems.
The Devil's Detective is an audacious, highly suspenseful thriller set against a nightmarish and wildly vivid world. Simon Kurt Unsworth has created a phantasmagoric thrill ride filled with stunning set pieces and characters that spring from our deepest nightmares. It will have readers of both thrillers and horror hanging on by their fingernails until the final word. In Hell, hope is your worst enemy.
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Simon Kurt Unsworth was born in Manchester and lives in a farmhouse in Cumbria, in the United Kingdom. He is the author of many short stories, including the collection Quiet Houses. The Devil's Detective is his first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The day began with Gordie, who knocked on Fool’s door and entered the room without waiting. He bustled over to Fool, waving a blue-ribboned canister in front of him like a torch that had lost its light as Fool pulled himself up onto an elbow, rubbing one hand across eyes that were thick with sleep. He was pleased to see that in Gordie’s other hand was a mug, steam curling out from it and bringing with it the smell of weak, thin coffee. Gordie set the mug down on the table by Fool’s bed and said, “One came through. It’s blue. I’ve never seen a blue before.”
Fool picked up the mug and sipped, glad of the heat of the coffee on his tongue even if the taste was buried beneath its scald. He twisted, careful not to spill his drink, and looked up at the high, small window, trying to work out from the light coming in around the grimy linen blind what time of day it was. Beams of gray, sickly illumination crawled across the wall at low angles, throwing shadows from right to left, meaning it was still morning. Escort duty hadn’t finished until . . . when? Sometime between the bars starting to close and the factories starting to open, he thought. He had returned in darkness, that he remembered, although his eyes had populated the nighttime shadows with after-images of light, shifting and dancing at the corners of his vision. If it was still morning, he had had only a few hours’ sleep. He groaned and sipped more of his coffee.
“It’s blue,” said Gordie again, helpfully, holding out the canister, its tangle of blue ribbon hanging down in loops. “It’s a blue, it’s just arrived. I saw it was a blue; we never get them, so I thought I’d better bring it to you. I wouldn’t have woken you otherwise, you know. It might be a Fallen.” As he spoke, Gordie was doing the thing he thought Information Men should do, darting his eyes around the room and looking for things. For clues, although what they might be, Fool had no idea. His room was tiny, as all theirs were, and usually contained little other than his bed, a table, a small set of open-faced drawers, a rail for his smock shirts and trousers, and a tiny bookcase that held no books except for his Information Man’s Guide to the Rules and Offices of Hell.
Today, however, it also contained the feather.
Gordie saw it as Fool sat up fully and took the canister from his colleague’s hand. The younger man’s mouth fell open and his hands dropped to his sides and Fool smiled despite himself, despite the early morning and the lack of sleep, because Gordie looked, for the shortest moment, like a child, a thing of innocence and joy. There was awe on his face, and his skin looked clean and smooth, youthful, his eyes opening wide.
The feather was lying on the top shelf of the bookcase, alongside the Guide and Fool’s gun, and it was beautiful. Curved, the shaft and barbs gleaming, it was perhaps a foot long and whiter than bone and it shivered lightly as Gordie walked toward it and reached out.
“Where . . . ?” he started, and then stopped loosely. “Where . . . ,” he started again and then, again, stopped. Fool didn’t reply. He looked at the feather and his eyes watered mildly, as though the brightness of the previous day had returned to the room for a moment.
“It was a gift,” said Fool, “from one of the angels.” Even saying it made him feel foolish, little silly Fool, because in Hell no one received gifts.
“Can I?” asked Gordie and Fool nodded. His colleague lifted the feather, gasped slightly, and turned to Fool.
“It’s beautiful, like Summer,” he said and then started, glancing down at the feather with a look on his face that Fool thought was almost suspicion.
“Yes,” Fool replied. What else was there to say? Gordie was still holding the feather and suddenly, sharply, he wanted him to put it down, to let it alone, so that he could pick it back up himself. He took another sip of his coffee and nodded at the tube.
“A blue!” said Gordie, the excitement coming back to his voice. He placed the feather back on the bookcase and twisted the cap off the tube, emptying out the roll of paper from within.
“Let’s see what we’ve got,” said Fool. “Let’s see what Hell wants to show us today.”
The body bobbed facedown in the water about six feet out from the shore, snagged on a clump of branches and leaves. It spun as it bobbed, caught in eddies that sent the water at the lake’s edge into choppy arrhythmia. Despite the dark oiliness of Solomon Water, it was obvious that the naked corpse was human; its skin was pale and torn, hanging in loose ribbons that exposed the darker meat of muscles and flesh.
“I saw it on my way to work,” the man by Fool was saying. “I mean, I saw the flash as I passed the lake, but I didn’t see the body until a few minutes later.”
“The flash?” asked Fool.
“There was a blue flash, I was up on the road and I saw a flash from down here, but I couldn’t see what it was because of the trees. It was a blue flash, and then lots of blue light went up into the sky. I came down here to see what it was.”
“Do you normally check out the things you see on your way to work?” asked Fool.
“If there’s a chance that it might be a Fallen,” replied the man. “It was a blue flash, I’ve told you. I thought it might have been a Fallen and I could claim it as mine. But it was only a body.”
Ah yes, thought Fool. This is only a body, so it’s not important, just a dead human, but it could have been a Fallen. Finding a Fallen was rumored to be a way of guaranteeing an Elevation, of escaping Hell’s grip. “You must have been disappointed,” said Fool. The man, whose name Fool had already lost but which would be in Gordie’s notebook, tensed, hearing Fool’s irritation.
“Look, I’m sorry he’s dead, but people die all the time, every day, don’t they? We’re never safe, are we? It’s not unusual, is it? And I’ve missed work waiting for you, and I’ll lose food for missing a day. At least I waited.”
“True,” said Fool, unable to disagree with anything the man had said. There were murders every day and every night in Hell, too many to count, more than they could ever hope to investigate. Most went unreported except for the details in the canisters that fell from the pneumatic pipes, wrapped in red ribbon or thread, which Fool normally read and then marked with a “DNI” stamp for Did Not Investigate before putting them back into a canister and firing them up the pipe, sending them on to Elderflower. The only reason he was here now was that the Bureaucracy had registered the blue flash and had also wondered about the possibility of it being a Fallen. The canister had been blue ribbon–wrapped, and they had standing orders to investigate any of those that came through as a priority; it was in his Guide. Blue canisters arrived irregularly, and in all Fool’s time in Hell, over five years now, there had never been a Fallen and he suspected there never would be. The rebel angels were already here, and the only ones left in Heaven were surely the followers and the trusted now, the arms of fury like Balthazar and of mercy like Adam; none of them would fall.
“We need the body,” said Fool to Gordie, turning away from the man at his side, focus shifting, “before the things in there take him.” Already, the body had jerked several times, and Fool suspected it was being eaten from below. Solomon Water was vast and full, its inky depths home to things that Fool hoped never to see. Not long ago, one had come ashore; it had eaten hundreds before being driven back into the water by a crowd of demons and humans in one of the rare moments when the two groups had worked together, brandishing flame and hurling rocks against it. This close to shore, and with only one body, it was unlikely that anything bigger than scavengers would approach, but there was always a chance. It was a chance that Fool did not want to take.
Gordie went to the water’s edge and stepped gingerly in, the liquid lapping over his shoes as he moved out from the shore. As Fool waited, he turned back to the man. “Did you see anything when you got here?” he asked. He knew Gordie had already asked this, but the man might remember something new, describe it differently, or reveal something extra.
“No, just the body,” the man replied. What was his name? “There were clothes near the water, but that was it.” The clothes were in a bag by Fool’s feet; he would look them over later. They were torn and bloody, that much he had seen already, and smeared with mud. Just up the slope, in among the trees, he had found a patch of churned and damaged ground, the earth freshly torn. Blood was puddled in the newly created hollows and had started to coagulate into a thick, brittle mess. Four teeth had been scattered around the saturated ground like frozen tears; Fool had picked them up and placed them in his pocket, wrapped in a handkerchief. One still had a piece of gum attached to it, dangling pinkly from the root, bloody and wormlike.
A crowd had gathered farther up the slope, perhaps ten or fifteen people massed beyond the trees and standing in loose clumps. They had also come in case it was a Fallen, he suspected, had seen the blue flash but hadn’t been as close as the nameless man, or had heard about it afterward and come anyway. They looked lost, aimlessly staring down the slope, their features impossible to make out at this distance. They were all human, though, that Fool could tell; there were no demons among them, although if the crowd remained long enough those others would come, attracted by the crumpling hope and the disappointment and the smell of sweat and despair. They would come to feed.
“Sir,” said Gordie from behind Fool. He had the body at the edge of the water but was struggling to pull it onto the land, and Fool went to help him, taking a grip on the corpse’s legs and lifting as Gordie clambered onto the lakeside and dragged it by the shoulders. Fool didn’t like the way the flesh felt, cold and clammy and loose, shifting under his fingers, and he was glad to be able to drop it on the ground once Gordie had made his way out from the water. It landed bonelessly on its back, and Fool winced at the state of it.
“Oh fuck,” the man breathed from behind Fool. Fool had forgotten he was there, and now he went to the man (West, he thought, suddenly remembering the man’s name, West), ushering him back and pointing at the others near the trees. West had gone pale, paler than before, and was gulping helplessly, staring at the battered body.
“Please, go up there and wait for me,” Fool said.
“Who could have done that?” asked West, and then doubled over and was sick, vomiting explosively onto the ground by Fool’s feet. The smell of it was sharp and sour, the vomit itself watery and gray. West hadn’t eaten much recently; no one had.
“I don’t know,” said Fool, but suspected he did.
The dead person was, had been, male. There were bite marks around the base of the flaccid penis, scabbed and angry red gashes that covered the scrotum and the lower belly; more lined the stomach and chest. One nipple was gone, the breast topped by an open wound. There were one or two smaller, circular marks on the dead man’s skin, and he thought that these were probably the marks from Solomon’s inhabitants, small questing bites from the things at the bottom of the water’s food chain taken before the larger creatures came to feed. The other bites, Fool recognized. They came from demons, were marked by a puckering of the flesh around the wound where the skin had scorched from the demon’s heat. There were crescent marks across the dead man’s face and neck from where his attacker had punched and hit him, these marks fresher, still not budded into full bruises. One cheek was torn open and flapping, revealing a lacerated gum and bloody holes for the missing teeth that currently sat in Fool’s pocket. He crouched, peering at the ruined face.
The water had already started to bloat and wrinkle the corpse’s skin, the eyelids pulling away from the eyeballs slightly. More of the small circular bites were dotted around the eyes, almost lost in the angry marks from the beating. The sclera of the left eye was blood-filled and the eye itself turned out, as though the force of the blows had snapped it from its moorings. Tears that were tinged with blood wept from the eyes in slow trickles.
“Do we take him to the Garden?” asked Gordie.
“No,” said Fool. Something about the body bothered him. It wasn’t the violence inflicted upon it, exactly; he saw similarly damaged bodies most days. No, it was the eyes, he thought; not their bloodiness or the fact that one had been so savagely abused that it had turned away from its companion, but the expression they contained. They were helpless, the helplessness of someone who saw his own death, or something worse, approaching and could do nothing about it. “I want Morgan to see him. I want him questioned.”
Fool’s hand went to the feather that was safely tucked into his inner pocket, the feel of it reassuring him for some reason. “Because I want to know who did this to him,” he said, and he did not add and catch them and punish them because he knew that, hope for it though he might, it was unlikely to happen. This was Hell, and sins here went often unnoticed and almost always unpunished. The best he could hope for was knowledge, something to put in a report to Elderflower so that he could pass it on to his masters, for information. He put his hand in his pocket, not the one containing the teeth or the feather, and fingered his badge of office, feeling the indentations that formed the words “Information Man,” and grinned humorlessly. “I want to know,” he said again.
“I’ll arrange transport,” said Gordie.
“No,” said a new voice, “he is mine.”
Trouble, little Fool, Fool had time to think, and then something hit him and sent him sprawling into the mud beside the body.
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