What is hell but the drudge of the daily struggle, an empty soul punching a clock, trying to grind out a dollar and a dime. At least in the human world work provides some sort of reward. But, in the “Capital H” Hell of Simon Kurt Unsworth’s ghastly vision, that cold comfort is stripped away—no rewards, no benefits, not even any hellfire and brimstone. Just work.
Unsworth has presented a grim yet terribly fun version of Hell in his two books, The Devil’s Detective and its follow-up The Devil’s Evidence. His prose resembles a Baroque-era Caravaggio painting of a Grand Guignol landscape of filth and depravity.
Both books feature the damned human Thomas Fool, working as Hell’s version of a detective—an Information Man, in Hell’s parlance. He’s a criminal investigator in a place where everything’s a crime, but nothing is solved, where there is an illusion of law and order, but never any justice.
Unsworth’s novels appeal equally to fans of Sam Raimi’s bloody spectacle Evil Dead and Richard Russo’s hilarious Straight Man, with its skewering of the academic world’s often mind-numbing culture. Just as 1982’s Evil Dead came before the era of “in on the joke” self-referentialism, Unsworth never winks at the audience. His Hell succeeds through its terrible dignity.
Both books are noir-style thrillers whose atmosphere—one of constant suspicion and betrayal—is more important than their plots.
In Detective, something is murdering people in Hell – not uncommon. But whatever’s doing the killing is destroying even the victim’s soul—Hell’s most coveted property. To investigate, Fool is given “jurisdiction,” and how far he takes that simple word will lead Fool to a series of evil discoveries. In The Devil’s Evidence, Fool is sent to Heaven, as part of a small “Hell’s delegation,” and he becomes embroiled in a murder mystery in a place where murder should be impossible. Outside the narrow connecting pathway between Heaven and Hell is a Lovecraftian vision of even worse things than demons, trying to break in.
An oppressive, paranoid atmosphere drives each story. Hell is the more interesting setting, where souls struggle through eternity, hoping to be one of a tiny few chosen to be “elevated” to Heaven. Surrounded by violent randomness and quick death, each soul has a gruesome, awful job.
…a line of naked humans crouched in the cropless field, crawling slowly across it… As they watched, one of the human’s defecated, the semiliquid excrement spattering down his legs and into the dirt… he lifted a handful of the dirt and fed himself with it, chewing and swallowing with a look of determination… ‘They’re fertilizing the ground,’ said Fool. All Hell’s farms are kept alive by them. They hope to achieve absolution by eating enough of Hell’s dirt.’
Other souls work as prostitutes for the demons, or clothesmakers in the “Houska” where the humans live in filthy quarters; there are even medics who provide palliative care to a tiny percentage. Hell has rules, but its bureaucracy is never quite consistent.
In this tormented world, Fool’s name works as a literal identity as well as his own internal monologue on how he sees himself: “Little slave Fool……idiot Fool…foolishly optimistic Fool.” He has it better than most. As what passes for a duly-appointed lawman, he can even stand up to the demons that prey on the rest of the humans. He receives directives and orders and can feel a semi-satisfaction at investigating, at feeling productive. But is this just another of Hell’s illusions?
Unsworth’s Hell is full of locales with entertaining names—The Flame Garden, Solomon Lake, the Houska, Crow Heights—each described with Cthulhu-esque panache:
The buildings at the center of the Heights were permanently afire, flames boiling inside blackened walls; Satan himself lived permanently in the flames, never leaving, burning and watching and grinning all the while.
Of course, Satan never quite appears—that’s not how a bureaucracy works. Fool works with mid-level functionaries in the authority chain – demons and creatures with names like Elderflower and Rhakshasas. These authority figures have their own motivations and agendas. It’s Hell, so nobody can be trusted.
In Devil’s Evidence, Fool discovers that even Heaven’s bureaucracy is conspiratorial. The angels have their own unflinching, pitiless role. One of them tells Fool: “In Heaven, my job is to patrol the walls, to be a soldier in the armies of light and good. I am created not for showing grand mercies, but for the muscular brutalities of goodness.” A grim take on “goodness,” indeed.
Still, Heaven doesn’t have the same terrible visuals as Hell. Evil is more fun.
If our past visions of Hell matched our vision of those times, then it makes sense that Unsworth’s Hell would adapt to our world. The human-demon Elderflower explains Hell’s current landscape to an angel frustrated by the lack of clear-cut damnation.
You expected the lakes of fire, the bodies torn asunder on racks… Where are the burning sinners, you wonder? That is no longer Hell… Hell evolves, mirroring the words about it.
And what could be more tormenting than an Earth-like world of jobs, accountability, expectations—even if those responsibilities include being used as shit-eating fertilizer? Unsworth’s books have a grim aura of normalcy.
Fool gives the humans of Hell perhaps the worst punishment of all: hope. He gives them a beacon, a human like themselves who can fight against the bureaucracy and the hidden rules. But it is unclear to Fool whose work he’s doing, and he wonders who has benefited the most from his investigations. Hell uses the illusion of choice and effort against us. Just like the obstacles we face in real life, Hell adapts and overcomes.
“And do you know the most wonderful thing?” someone says to Fool. “They’ll welcome this change, hold their arms open and say how it’s what they want… they’ll remember that they invited this in, and they’ll hate themselves for it.”