The Devil You Know by Mike Carey
The Devil You Know
By Mike Carey
Published by Orbit Books (UK), April 2006. ISBN: 9781841494135
and Warner Books (US), July 2007. ISBN: 9780446580304.
Review by Hobbit / Mark Yon
So what does a writer and artist known for his graphic work (for you may also know him as Mike Carey, super-comic-book-writer of Hellblazer and Lucifer fame) do in his spare time?
The answer is, of course, “Write a novel!”
That may be a sticking point for some readers: after all, the genre is littered with the failed experiments of others who have tried the same, and it can’t be said that his chosen area of writing, the world of supernatural realism, is an uncrowded one at the moment. However, with this book Mike makes a very impressive debut – though not altogether perfect.
At first glance, the initial pitch is not that impressive. Felix (‘Fix’) Castor is a freelance exorcist, living and working in London. He ekes a living by chasing ghosts and dealing with supernatural problems. Down on his luck, he comes out of self-imposed retirement and takes on a job investigating the appearance of a mysterious white lady seen around the shelves of the London Bonnington archive. Her appearances have become more violent of late, to the point where staff become uncomfortable in working there. Fix’s investigation leads him to the point where the reasons for the haunting could be numerous, most of them involving one or more of the staff at the archive.
From an initial, rather predictable, premise, the first few hundred pages are of a book that was surprisingly good. It is sinisterly dark, at times chillingly scary, unpretentious, yet well written. From the first opening scene, told in the first person, involving Felix moonlighting at a children’s party from hell, to the final dramatic scenes closing the book, Mike’s style is fast, taut and knowledgeable, filled with cultural and popular references that create the sense that Fix is of this world (which then makes the supernatural events more creepy.)
To help in this grounding in reality, Mike manages to evoke a real sense of place. The London Bonnington Archive is based on a real place (the Metropolitan Archive), though perhaps not exactly as Mike re-imagines it. The streets and places mentioned are real or, perhaps more importantly, give the impression of reality. London has not impressed me as much since Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: there’s a real sense of a city that is dark, forbidding and steeped in history and horror. Add to this the ghosts, zombies, succubae and were-animals living in all those urban shadows and it becomes a place of interest, though not one you’d perhaps want to personally visit.
The current trend for violent crime novels is partly reflected here. The book at times, and particularly in its latter stages, is rather depressingly sleazy. Dealing with gangsters, prostitution and some very unpleasant torture and rape scenes makes uncomfortable reading which can sit uneasily side-by-side with some of Fix’s humour. Fix’s world is not easy on the senses. Despite this, the ending is fairly successful, though for me not as good as the initial premise would have suggested. Events are set up nicely for the next book in the series.
More serious perhaps than Harry Dresden, more sympathetic than Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt, Felix himself is a well-written character with some depth, haunted by his past mistakes yet determined to do right, a troubled antihero with echoes of other iconic characters, again perhaps reflecting Mike’s involvement in the X-Men and Fantastic Four comic books. The supporting cast are as weird and as quirky as you might expect, yet oddly endearing.
Urban fantasy? Horror? Who cares! Whatever genre you want to put it in, I found this nearly as good as Jim Butcher, (of whom I think very highly), yet intriguingly British in tone and style. This was an unexpected treat that reached well above my expectations. For those always looking in dark corners, it would be a great read for Halloween. I was so impressed afterwards I went and bought Book 2 (Vicious Circle), which I look forward to. Book 2 and Book 3 (Dead Man’s Boots) are out in the UK now (and the US soon.)
Mark Yon / Hobbit, October 2007
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