Craig Russell- The Devil Aspect

1935. As Europe prepares itself for a calamitous war, six homicidal lunatics – the so-called ‘Devil’s Six’ – are confined in a remote castle asylum in rural Czechoslovakia. Each patient has their own dark story to tell and Dr Viktor Kosárek, a young psychiatrist using revolutionary techniques, is tasked with unlocking their murderous secrets.
At the same time, a terrifying killer known as ‘Leather Apron’ is butchering victims across Prague. Successfully eluding capture, it would seem his depraved crimes are committed by the Devil himself.
Maybe they are… and what links him with the insane inmates of the Castle of the Eagles?

At the close of the book, Craig Russell has included a small piece on why and how he chose to write this, and the depth of research he undertook in its creation. With its sublime mix of history, both societal and psychoanalytic, folklore, murder and mental disturbance, this is a real edge of your seat read, so settle back and find out why…

The book follows the progress of a grisly murder case, where a woman is eviscerated in the same style as Jack The Ripper’s victims some decades earlier. As the murderer stalks the street of Prague, a connection is made between the perpetrator the dark stories concerning the inhabitants of a mental asylum, and the apocryphal history of the haunted Hrad Orlu castle itself. Russell sucks us in completely to this ever more sinister tale, where we bear witness to the escalating violence of the killer in Prague, and the gradual unveiling of the Devil’s Six incarcerated in the asylum, and their uniquely horrific stories. However, what sets this apart from a slightly creepy horror story, are the fascinating strands of narrative that Russell fleshes the story out with, so we also get an insight into the heightening political tensions in both Czechoslavakia and Europe, the differing schools of thought regarding the treatment of mental disturbance, some truly creepy stories arising from Czech folklore, and a stark reminder of the tissue thin boundaries between sanity and insanity. Not only is this a skilfully rendered and haunting story of madness and murder, but the incorporation of these other facets make for an admittedly eerie but utterly fascinating read as we are so immersed in this period, and bear witness to the slowly evolving revolution in the treatment of the insane, continuing with, or challenging the work of Freud and Jung.

The characterisation in The Devil Aspect is top notch, and I really enjoyed the way that Russell toys with our perceptions of who is good or evil. Everyone is to some degree or another touched by madness, be it in their professional capacity, their interactions with the patients themselves, in the darkest corners of their own psyches sparked by events in their formative years, or the burgeoning of the present itself and the increasing hostility and restlessness sweeping across Europe. I am reluctant to dwell too much on individual characters themselves, as I really want you to be as surprised and shocked as I was as Russell slowly shines a spotlight on each, incorporating more than a few ‘bloody-hell-I-didn’t-see-that-coming-moments’ as he delves into their psyches. Suffice to say your sympathies and belief in some of the characters may be sharply turned on its head as you get more and more involved in this one.

Mwahaha…

So gird your loins everyone, as this book is guaranteed to haunt your dreams and undoubtedly some of your waking hours too. It’s clever, skilfully blending the worlds of science, detection and superstition, populated with an intriguing set of characters, and Russell uses the twin locations of Prague, and the remote forest setting of the Hrad Orlu asylum to the creepiest nth degree. Thoroughly enjoyed this one, so can not be anything less than highly recommended.

(With thanks to Constable for the ARC)

Anna Mazzola- The Story Keeper

Audrey Hart is on the Isle of Skye to collect the folk and fairy tales of the people and communities around her. It is 1857 and the Highland Clearances have left devastation and poverty, and a community riven by fear. The crofters are suspicious and hostile to a stranger, claiming they no longer know their fireside stories. Then Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach and the crofters reveal that it is only a matter of weeks since another girl disappeared. They believe the girls are the victims of the restless dead: spirits who take the form of birds. Initially, Audrey is sure the girls are being abducted, but as events accumulate she begins to wonder if something else is at work. Something which may be linked to the death of her own mother, many years before…

Having thoroughly enjoyed Anna Mazzola’s debut, The Unseeing based on an historical murder case, I was more than intrigued to see what would come next from the author. Suffice to say that this glorious mix of the gothic and the folkloric more than hit the spot…

Once again, the breadth of Mazzola’s historical research is clearly in evidence again, using the backdrop of 19th century Skye to weave this dark and mysterious tale. Melding together the utter poverty wrought by the infamous land clearances of the period, the chasm between rich and poor, and the superstitious belief in folklore, Mazzola paints a vivid picture of the period which has a vivid clarity, and transports the reader effortlessly to this moment in time. I absolutely loved the rendering of the folkloric tales, that Audrey is employed to collect and catalogue, and the natural compulsion displayed by the crofting community to withhold these tales from prying outsiders, leading Audrey to chip away at this reluctance to satisfy her strange and eccentric employer Miss Buchanan. Equally, the interweaving of Gaelic history, and the reduced livelihoods of the local inhabitants adds further colour and context to the story, but there is an even more vital strand to this book concerning Audrey herself.

Audrey has fled from London unchaperoned to take up this position, causing us instantly to wonder at the reasons for such ‘unladylike’ behaviour, and here a very important story arc is revealed. Mazzola uses Audrey’s story, and that of other young women she encounters in Skye, to really cut to the grist of the position of women in this period in society. Without giving too much away, the patriarchal, male oriented society is very much the catalyst for her escape, and her story is poignant and thought provoking, allowing Mazzola to explore the extreme emotional and financial hardship that Audrey and other women experience, and the abuses and indignities they suffer. I found this theme in the book very emotive, and with a modern sensibility felt a righteous anger on their behalf. As the abuses in the local community come to light, Audrey is compelled to intervene and defend the right of these women for justice, placing herself in extreme danger too, and as the sense of peril builds, with a beautifully weighted feel of gothic suspense, there are some extremely dark misdemeanours to reveal.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Story Keeper, and as each layer of the story was peeled back, and different facets of the everyday existence of this community was brought to light there was an enhanced level of interest throughout the book. With it’s curious mix of the ordinary, the strange, the gap between rich and poor, mental illness, and the inherent danger to, and tacit subservience of women in this period, I was held in a state of fascination from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Tinder Press to the ARC)