While I'm happy to work through series by some of my favourite contemporary authors, I believe that the best part of my job as a Nameless Zine reviewer is that I get to read many cool looking books without any or much background as to what they are or who wrote them. And some of these are real finds, trips through thoroughly original worlds. That discovery is my high.
Along with books like Michael R. Fletcher's 'Beyond Redemption' (click here for review) and Indra Das's 'The Devourers'(click here for review), one of the most original works I've read recently was Simon Kurt Unsworth's 'The Devil's Detective'. (click here for review) Marketed as a crime novel, it encompassed many other genres, including fantasy and horror, and I absolutely adored it. This book is its sequel, which I now wonder is the second half of a duology or the middle book in a trilogy still to be completed. It could reasonably end here, in ironically brutal fashion, for our hero, Thomas Fool, who may well be at once nobody worth mentioning and the most important person to have entered Heaven or Hell in millennia.
He starts out here roughly as he left off in 'The Devil's Detective', investigating murders in Hell, as apparently worthless a treadmill as you might expect. In some ways, his life is better, as he's now in command of the entire Information Office of Hell, a human being with demons at his beck and call, something completely unheard of. In others, however, it's not, as Hell has conjured up a parallel organisation called The Evidence, led by a freaky weird demon named Mr. Tap, whose employees trample around his crime scenes like jackbooted thugs, killing humans and destroying evidence with an insane ineptitude.
There are two tasks at hand. One is a set of horrific mass murders, though 'horrific' is as redundant an adjective as could be applied to anything happening in Hell. The other is a set of fires, which take down infrastructure in abundance and worry the Archdeacons of Hell to no small degree. However, after only a few chapters, Fool has to pass these investigations over to a promising assistant named Marianne because he's being sent to Heaven.
I mentioned in my review of 'The Devil's Detective' that Hell functions because of the abiding element of hope, which remains shrunken and elusive but never entirely absent. One instance of the importance of hope in Hell is the possibility of elevation, that a sinner might one day be sent up to Heaven, as part of a bundle determined by a visiting delegation of angels. The odds are worse than winning a lottery jackpot but they're not infinite.
In this book, Fool becomes perhaps the first human to go from Hell to Heaven without being elevated. He's being sent as part of a delegation of demons, naturally the most grotesque examples of their species that can be found, who happen to be on a mission of their own, but he isn't really part of their contingent. He discovers that he's there at the request of the Malakim, the messengers of Heaven, as there are things happening that they do not understand. He impressed them with his actions during the events of the first book and they see nobody else able to investigate murders in the most perfect place imaginable.
And we soon discover why, courtesy of Unsworth's vision of Heaven. I'm a little less sold on how well he nails Heaven than how he nailed Hell, but I'm hardly going to complain as nobody else has come up with a better take that I've seen. In fact, I can't think of anyone who's come close. Here, the denizens of Heaven spend their time asleep and dreaming, enjoying imaginary worlds that they conjure themselves out of the most pleasant memories they have, living them out again as if they were real. While they have no idea, all their needs are attended to by angels, who are Fool's first problem.
You see, they believe utterly in God's Plan. Everything is perfect. Everything is as it should be. Therefore death must merely be an accident, even though it's never happened before. They aren't much help in an investigation when they don't believe that an investigation is warranted. In their way, they're as bad for Fool's crime scenes as the Evidence Men in Hell.
And there are parallels. I was rather impressed by how Heaven and Hell could be so completely different but be structured so similarly. Of course, the interesting characters aren't the run of the mill demons or angels but those who sit above them in their respective hierarchies. Just as there are Archdeacons of Hell above the regular demons, not all angels are alike. The Malakim were our first hint at that but the clown angel, Mayall is a riot. I enjoyed the differences and similarities immensely and Unsworth keeps feeding us more as the book runs on, so that we discover things as Fool does and gradually make sense of what's going on.
This book works on a number of levels. For a start, it's a worthy sequel, a return to the world of Thomas Fool, a man who shouldn't matter in the slightest but continually seems to do so. Unsworth's Heaven is as fascinating a place as his Hell was a novel earlier. It's a longer book, though not as much so as it seems; the paperback felt a lot flimsier than it was and this hardback feels a lot larger than it is. However, it's a more patient one too. I was engrossed by 'The Devil's Detective' and found it powerfully written, but Unsworth seems to be much more at home with this one, which unfolds with a relentless patience that is utterly appropriate for its setting.
If I had a problem with it, it was the very end, when Unsworth wraps things up for Thomas Fool after the main plot strands have been resolved. I can't argue with it, because it's entirely fitting but it still doesn't sit right for me as the ending of a duology. I'm hoping that he's working on a third book in the series, which presumably would have to be set either in Purgatory or somewhere else neatly imaginative, but my heart tells me that the story is done and he has no need to continue.
Whatever he writes next, I'll be on the lookout for Simon Kurt Unsworth's next book as he's emphatically one of the most original writers active today. ~~ Hal C F Astell