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)

Oscar de Muriel- A Fever of the Blood

Fever_of_the_BloodNew Year’s Day, 1889. In Edinburgh’s lunatic asylum, a patient escapes as a nurse lays dying. Leading the manhunt are legendary local Detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray and Londoner-in-exile Inspector Ian Frey. Before the murder, the suspect was heard in whispered conversation with a fellow patient – a girl who had been mute for years. What made her suddenly break her silence? And why won’t she talk again? Could the rumours about black magic be more than superstition? McGray and Frey track a devious psychopath far beyond their jurisdiction, through the worst blizzard in living memory, into the shadow of Pendle Hill – home of the Lancashire witches – where unimaginable danger awaits…

Having been singularly impressed by de Muriel’s debut, The Strings of Murder, introducing uncouth Scottish detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray, and softy Southern detective Ian Frey, there was more than a hint of excitement when A Fever Of The Blood arrived, replete with a raven’s feather- perfect marketing for this blogger. So how did our tenacious, and wonderfully ill-matched detective duo fare in this new instalment of de Muriel’s Victorian inspired series? There is dark witchcraft afoot, and Frey and McGray find themselves in more than a spot of peril…

One of the joys of a second book in a series is to see how the author further develops their characters, and the shades of dark and light they apply to their central protagonists. This is certainly true of this book, as the asperity and bravery of Frey increases in his tussles with his obnoxiousness and fearless counterpart McGray. However, by the same token there is a slight softening of the edges of McGray himself, as details of his family background come into focus, and a new, dare I say it, more touchy feely side is exposed. Yes. What are the odds of that? Admittedly, some switches in their characters can be explained by the dark forces of witchcraft that are at work upon them throughout this murderous adventure, but I liked this little teasing of our perceptions about the pair, that de Muriel has woven into the book. The book is again infused with the crude wit and ripostes of McGray, when frustrated by the buttoned-up protestations of Frey, and these moments of humour are perfectly placed throughout. Equally, in true pantomime style there is a boo-worthy crew of baddies to thwart and torment our heroes, and the grotesque Lady Ardglass makes a reappearance but with little change in her own character- once an old crone, always an old crone- and whose blighted family history lays at the centre of this latest devilish tale. There are evil witches, good witches, lunatic asylum patients and ineffectual policemen, and a wonderful manipulation of our senses as to who is good, who is bad, and who is actually more than a little bit of both. The characterisation is lively, playful, and at times incredibly dark and chilling, and de Muriel balances all these contrasting aspects of his protagonists and antagonists with an assured air.

There is an unrelenting pace to the book as Frey and McGray embark on a game of cat and mouse as they seek to track down asylum escapee Joel Ardglass, offspring of the hideous Lady Ardglass, but find themselves in the sight of some unholy creatures, and a final denouement in the shadows of Pendle, Lancashire, with all its allusions to the famous witchcraft case. Indeed, the majority of the book sees Frey and McGray in a state of frenetic perambulation, led onward by the mysterious green glow of witches’ beacons, and the will o’ the wisp tendencies of their fugitive from justice. It’s fair to say that more than one mishap befalls them along the way, and there are some real nerve-shredding moments as the plot progresses. So in addition to being a real tale of ominous derring-do, there is, as explained by the author’s notes, the careful inclusion of factual reference to witchcraft and its practices in days of yore. Also, de Muriel has taken a little bit of artistic licence drawing on his Mexican heritage, and integrating some little details of the dark arts that herald from his own homeland, which adds to the overall colour and interest of the witchcraft narrative.

So, it’s all deliciously dark, violent and compelling, with new nuances to the characters of, and the relationship between our earthy Scotsman McGray, and his rather reluctant counterpart Frey. There are dark arts, light humour, and a sense of unrelenting excitement and danger. It’s a romp, and a very enjoyable one at that.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)