The Devil You Know by Mike Carey (2007)
I tried really hard not to allow myself to do this, but alas, I have no willpower when it comes to books. The Devil You Know by Mike Carey is the first in a series featuring exorcist Felix “Fix” Castor, and although I’ve been trying to avoid starting a new series this year, I took only forty-five days for me to fail at my goal. Oh well. Moving on.
The world Carey creates and that Castor inhabits is present-day London, but I wouldn’t necessarily put this into the urban fantasy genre. What makes this London just a little different is that the dead have risen–not all of them, of course, but enough for the people of the world to notice. Ghosts are also visible to the common, everyday person. This is where Castor comes in–he’s a modern-day Ghostbuster. If you have an “infestation” so to speak, he’s the guy you call. Or that is, he was. Until the start of this story, Castor had turned away from the life of exorcism because of a mistake that had great consequences for one of his friends. To make money, Castor intends to set himself as a magician to perform for children’s parties, but the opening tableau of the novel demonstrates that this is not going to be a successful endeavor for him. Just in time, it seems, he’s offered a job to exorcise a ghost that is haunting a building that houses a document archive. At first he refuses, but events conspire and he reluctantly accepts the job. From here, Castor’s skills and experience with exorcism blend into a nascent desire to solve the mystery surrounding the ghost and why she is haunting this specific place to begin with. It is, in a way, the origin story for a exorcist-cum-detective. In fact, although this book has the element of the supernatural, I’d actually more firmly place it in the detective fiction genre than urban fantasy.
But don’t go thinking that Castor falls into the mode of Philip Marlowe. The Devil You Know does incorporate elements of noir and hard-boiled detective fiction. There’s the mystery within the mystery that is intricate and takes time for Castor to unravel. There’s the femme fatale in the form of Juliet, a succubus that is raised from Hell to kill Castor. There’s the fact that the plot itself involves the seedy underbelly of the city. One of the other things about the novel that reminds me of Raymond Chandler is the lush prose and diction. Here’s an example: “Polished bare boards bore the muddy paw prints of early-evening punters.” I read that sentence several times and couldn’t help but admire Carey’s style. I should probably say here that American readers not accustomed to British phrases and idioms might find themselves a little puzzled by some of the things Castor says in narrating his story, but it’s not so pervasive that it would discourage casual readers. The narrative is told from a first-person point-of-view, and as a narrator Castor is engaging and pulls me into the story. However, there are times when the narrative pace really slows down, and to be honest, the novel is a bit slow. The moment when this is most noticeable is during an exposition-heavy chapter where Castor confronts the murderer and details how and why the murder occurred. The momentum that the narrative had managed to build up to that point comes to a crashing halt, and this particular chapter is the one that precedes the crisis and final showdown. So you know what happened, how the various characters were involved, and why the ghost is haunting the archive. At the same time, I felt like I was slogging through this part as I was reading. It’s a first-person narrative, and Castor does move from place to place as he investigates the case and this helps drive the story, but at the same time, it feels like there’s very little action.
Since this is the first in a series, I would usually want to talk about the supporting cast. There’s not one to speak of to any great extent in The Devil You Know. The person who Castor is closest to is his friend and landlady, Pen. He lives in her house, and they were at university together. Pen also happens to be the old lover of Rafi, the person I named above who Castor tried to exorcise a ghost from, only to find that his friend was actually possessed by a demon. Castor also has a brother–Matt–who makes one appearance in the novel, and I could see him popping up in future books. Finally, there’s Juliet the succubus, who seems to be staying in Castor’s world. Really, though, that’s about it, and I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing. Rafi’s story is definitely not at a close, and although Juliet promises to be interesting at the very least, she and Pen are still mostly unknown quantities and their roles in the series going forward remain very much a mystery.
The natural question I always ask myself after reading the first book in a series–will I read more? It surprises me how difficult it is for me to give a definitive answer to this question because honestly, my response is I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s like that pilot episode of a new show where you’re not necessarily turned off, but you’re not waiting impatiently for the next episode either; where you don’t know if you should give it a second chance to impress you or cut your losses now. Right now, I’m not sure which way I’m going to go.
Have you read this series? If so, does it get better?