I’m not a fan of novels that flaunt their influences, particularly when I’m familiar with the influences in question. It’s like paying to see a new band and discovering only after the set begins that you’re watching a cover band. The music may be competent, but if you wanted to hear those songs, you could just listen to the original stuff.
It’s clear from The Devil You Know that Mike Carey really likes Raymond Chandler. I had that influence spotted from the first chapter; I didn’t need the name-check he provides in Chapter 22. The problem is Carey’s not as clever at dialogue or internal monologue as Chandler was. And Chandler had a lot more love for and knowledge of 1940s Los Angeles than Carey has for modern London. A tube-stop itinerary does not compelling reading make, nor does it tell you anything meaningful about London.
When he gets out of his own way, Carey is a good storyteller. When most of the Hellblazer and Raymond Chandler residue is burned off, his talent for world-building and for scripting action scenes shines through. I enjoyed the descriptions of exorcism-by-music. The fights and chases were compelling, and I turned the pages as eagerly as anyone caught up in the action. Unfortunately, a story needs more than fights and chases, and that’s where the book falls down.
There are problems in this book that a good editor should have fixed. For example, Carey makes a point of telling us how competent and worldly Felix Castor is, follows it up with a visit to Castor’s paranoid friend with the comment that said friend’s paranoia is contagious, then three pages later has Castor caught completely off-guard by a succubus. The event doesn’t ring true, and it makes me doubt that he really understands his main character.
The worst offense in the novel, however, is the reveal of the mystery. Castor spends three-quarters of the novel chasing down clues and interviewing people. The clues are intriguing even when they don’t quite connect in the expected way. I accept that I shouldn’t necessarily be able to determine exactly what happened from the clues, BUT… it shouldn’t require a twenty-page-long backstory from the guilty party to explain how all the dots connect. It ceases to be a shocking revelation and wanders dangerously close to a lecture where Carey is just reading us his working notes.
It brings me no joy to write so harshly about this book. I think that Carey’s The Unwritten is the best title currently being published under DC’s Vertigo imprint. I know that Carey is an accomplished storyteller and fully capable of bringing a modern fantasy to life, but ultimately, The Devil You Know feels like a John Constantine story that he never had the chance to tell. I suspect it might have played better as a Constantine story, rather than as a clunky first novel.