Thomas Fool, Satan’s top crime solver, is back, and, more than ever, you wonder what awful deeds this poor wretch did in life to deserve such a relentlessly dreadful calling.
This follow-up to Unsworth’s debut novel, The Devil’s Detective (2015), finds Hell’s “Information Man” once again dealing with wanton, inexplicable, and unauthorized violence visited upon the Eternally Condemned. In this case, it’s a series of fires—“Six, maybe seven, or even eight”—that have fatally burned living souls all over the netherworld. (And yes, Hell is notorious for fire. But if you paid attention to this novel’s immediate predecessor, you’re aware that these days, there are many more awful things that can happen to you Down There than being roasted on a spit 24/7.) As Fool is struggling to determine a pattern for this homicidal arson, his masters dispatch him and a delegation of demons to Heaven, aka the Not-Nearly-As-Bad-Place-Up-Yonder, where, hard as it may be to believe, there are also a handful of unexplained murders that may or may not be linked to the ones down below. Despite being disdained by Heaven’s angelic elite while being tortured by Hell’s roughneck “Evidence” specialists, Fool doggedly presses on with his inquiry, finding almost as many distressing similarities between Heaven and Hell as he does unsettling contrasts. Both, for instance, have bureaucracies that are arbitrary and shortsighted in dispensing judgment. “There are hierarchies even [in Heaven],” Fool thinks to himself. “Even in the place of perfection there are those who are more powerful, more perfect.” Soon, both hierarchies are goaded from uneasy détente to total war, and Fool finds himself running out of time and resources to figure out who, or what, is behind this unholy maelstrom. Unsworth’s conception of a spiritual universe where deeper understanding may itself be the greatest curse is as nuanced and ingenious as his depiction of “poor little Fool,” perhaps the most oddly endearing sleuth to come along in years. The scales are tipped a tad more toward gaudy savagery and gratuitous cruelty than toward more intellectual digressions and plot twists. Still, one suspects Thomas Fool will return, with more respect from readers than from his spiritual jailers.
It’s less a whodunit than a ripsnorter, with an emphasis on the ripping. Or maybe the snorting.