The Devil You Know: A Felix Castor Novel
by Mike Carey
Review by John Berlyne
Orbit Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1841494135
Date: 06 April, 2006 List Price £6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
There are fashions and trends in fiction, much I suppose as there are in most other things. It's important though to remember that publishing is a commercial industry and that publishers have targets to meet and margins to attain. Consequently, fashions and trends in the book world rarely happen organically. If one publisher has success with a particular kind of novel, others will step up to try and capitalise – and rightly so, for the reader who has just finished and enjoyed book "X", will be eager to buy a book that is sold to them as being just like book "X". It doesn't matter to the reader who the publisher is, or even the writer – they're just interested in the book's similarity to "X". Just as some writers wisely follow the sagely adage to write what they know, so readers likewise will want read what they know.
If you're a fan of, say, Laurel K. Hamilton's Anita Blake Vampire Hunter stories, you're likely then to be tempted to pick up novels by Kelley Armstrong (Bitten, Broken) or Tanya Huff (The Vicky Nelson Mysteries), or you may want to read Jim Butcher's Dresden Files or perhaps Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse stories. These writers (all transatlantic authors incidentally) are producing fine work within the sub-genre of the 'supernatural thriller/detective story in a contemporary setting' and right now it's story trope that seems the height of fashion. With shrewd foresight and a solid approach to business, UK publisher Orbit has made sure to snap up all these authors and thus they have pretty much have the 'ST/DSIACS' market cornered here in Britain. However, for all the success this sub-genre has brought this publisher, there has been a noticeable lack of home grown talent writing within this genre niche.
This is about to change.
Meet Felix Castor, the hero of Mike Carey's quite extraordinary new novel. Felix is an exorcist for hire. Or he was. When we first meet him at the very beginning of The Devil You Know, he's actually dressed up as a children's entertainer, a kind of back up profession he's fallen into after a particularly unpleasant exorcism a year or so ago. Felix displays all the wry self-loathing one would expect in a gumshoe protagonist, but there's nothing clichéd about him (Carey is far too on the ball to fall into that trap) and he's a character with a very contemporary feel. Before long, an unexpected phone call lures our hero back into his true profession – in this instance, Felix is roped in to exorcise a ghost that is haunting a central London literary archive. The ghost's appearance is mysterious – but not in the way we might expect, for the setting of Carey's story is a London that is awash with restless spirits, demons and werefolk. No, this ghost is an oddment because there's no discernible link to the place and people that it is haunting. If Felix can establish the link, perhaps he can banish the ghost. Shouldn't be too difficult, right? Yeah, right!
So neatly does Carey introduce his reader to protagonist, background and situation that The Devil You Know is an instantly addictive read – it's been a long while since a book grabbed my attention in such an unrelenting way. These three strands in the writing, the anchor points to any successful novel, are laid out so perfectly here that it's impossible not to get drawn deeply and inexorably into what's going on. Felix has a cynical and self-deprecating nature that the reader instantly warms to. In alluding early on to the failed exorcism that gave rise to Felix's own (very real) demons, Carey gives his lead a vulnerability that has us gunning for him from the off. At the same time the London in which he lives and works is very recognisable (particularly for me – I lived for many years just round the corner from where Carey places the venue for the haunting, The Bonnington Institute) – it's the London of now, of today, but it's a London changed by the reality of the spirits that roam it's streets and alleyways. It's as if, walking those darkened city streets, the things we sometimes feel might be lurking in the shadows have, in Carey's London, stepped out into the light. And the most impressive aspect of this setting is how Carey underplays it. Where others would pad their novel with swathes of explanation, leading the reader by the nose through how these things came to be, Carey puts it to us simply and succinctly - 'This is the way things are around here – now lets get on with the business of why we're all here'. The Devil You Know is not about the wallpaper, it's about the plot, plot and more plot.
And what a plot it is – and I'm not going to balls it up for you by giving you any details about it! What I will say though is that it nothing in this work is overcooked – something I find is not always the case with some US authors who write in this field. Carey instead avoids cliché by displaying a lightness of touch that few other writers of any kind of fiction come close to and there are even fewer who manage it in a first novel. His sense of balance throughout The Devil You Know is faultless – between comedy and drama, between fear and horror, between the supernatural and the unnatural and between the necessary active and passive ingredients of the story. There is action throughout The Devil You Know - something happening on every page, but it's pitched perfectly, never overwhelming or lambasting the reader. Thus the pacing of this novel is as good as it gets and the result is something that really doesn't feel like we've seen it before. In a sub-genre crowded with clones, Carey has produced something truly groundbreaking.
Some readers will know Mike Carey from his acclaimed work in the comic and graphic novel markets (he's the writer of the Hellblazer and Lucifer series). Indeed his pedigree in that sector of genre media is second to none. However, graphic novels have (hitherto) never really been my thing and so I came to The Devil You Know with no prior knowledge of the author's storytelling ability. I leave this book behind in no doubt that Carey is a premier league player, a masterful storyteller who can keep his audience enthralled whichever medium he's using to entertain us. One can only hope he gets as much pleasure in the writing as we do in the reading.
A second Felix Castor novel, Viscous Circle is due for release in October. If you read the first, I guarantee you'll want to read the second.
Very highly recommended.