Y’all already know that I’m a sucker for detective stories with a twist (see: The Last Policeman, The Manual of Detection, etc.). So when this book, whose title is no misnomer, crossed my path, I knew I needed to read it.
But I almost didn’t. I picked up the book and started reading about angels coming down to hell to negotiate moving some of Hell’s souls up to Heaven, and I was like, hold on, this is a detective book, right? After I reassured myself that there would somehow be a murder, in Hell, I went back to reading and things got just even weirder. It turns out that the twist in this detective novel is that it’s also a horror novel, which I somehow managed not to guess from the title, and so in addition to police procedures there is also gruesome sex and violence and a lot of creep factor. Not my cup of tea, usually, but there’s enough other stuff to focus on that you can tune a lot of the gross stuff out.
Unsworth’s premise is a Hell wherein Dante-like punishment has been replaced by toil and drudgery, where human souls are fished out of a sea and formed into beings whose profession — whether prostitute or Information Man — and life in Hell is preordained. When humans die, their souls go back out into the sea for the chance of another go-around, until maybe someday they are randomly chosen to go to Heaven.
Once the murder plot came in, the book picked up quickly for me. Our hero, Thomas Fool, is an Information Man, tasked with solving crimes but usually not bothering to, unless it’s deemed really important. The crime that starts off this novel is really important — a human is dead, but not like regular dead, where his soul goes back into the sea to try again, but like super dead, where is soul is completely and totally gone. This is new in Hell, and both the humans and the demons are wary of whatever demon has managed to accomplish this feat. Fool is tasked with solving this crime above all other priorities, and he soon learns (of course) that Hell isn’t quite what it seems.
This book is fascinating mostly for its setting and world-building, laying out a Hell not terribly different from regular life and changing up the rules that we and even the angels of this world are used to. The mystery was not super difficult for me to figure out, but Fool’s troubles with it pave the way for the intriguing ending (that I believe is leading into a sequel) and allow more time to learn about this strange afterlife, so I guess I can give it a pass.
I’m glad I came into this book fairly blind, because I might not have read it otherwise and it’s actually a pretty decent book! If they publish that sequel, I will definitely check it out.
Recommendation: For fans of not-quite-detective stories and those who are not or don’t mind feeling squeamish.