Mike Carey's The Devil You Know and Vicious Circle
Reviewed by Laura Blackwell
07 September 2007
Exorcism is both more and less than a job. You do it because it's something you can do, and because once you've started, there's something about it that doesn't let you stop. But, in the long run, it gets to you.
—The Devil You Know
Felix Castor got out of the exorcism business a year and a half ago, after he accidentally wove a demon into his friend Rafi's soul. At least, Castor would like to stay out of it, but the business isn't letting him go. In Mike Carey's supernatural noir novels The Devil You Know and Vicious Circle, almost everybody can see ghosts and zombies—but only an exorcist can banish the spirits. Armed with little more than a tin whistle and a smart mouth, Castor takes on nasty foes both living and dead in the name of truth, justice, and scraping together the rent. Carey deftly melds gripping plots, memorable details, and dark humor, making Felix Castor and the beginning of this series irresistible.
At the beginning of The Devil You Know, Castor's lack of cash has driven him to a new low: performing stage magic at a sullen adolescent's birthday party. But there's no way he's making a career out of that, so when his office phone rings, he can't help answering it. A museum archive administrator asks him to rid the stacks of a faceless ghost, and he reluctantly accepts. Nothing is as simple as it appears, though, and Castor—"Fix" to what friends he has—pursues the ghost's past and his own demons through the archive and the seamy side of London. It's more trouble than he technically needs to go through just to exorcise a ghost, but the deeper he gets into the case, the deeper he finds the wrongness to be. Ghosts and demons pursue him too, starting with his friend Rafi's cryptically taunting passenger, Asmodeus. Castor must also dodge murderous visits from the succubus Ajulutsikael and a huge loup-garou (French for "werewolf," the word here refers to a human ghost that's possessed the body of an animal).
It's not much of a spoiler to say that Castor can't stay away from professional exorcism. In the second novel, Vicious Circle, Fix accepts a well-paying commission to locate the missing ghost of a young girl for her grieving parents. Another exorcist calls him in on a different case, asking his opinion about a church that appears to be possessed. But this apparent business boom is no consolation when a psychometric reading of the girl's belongings shows a deep and inexplicable sadness. Castor's sense of right and wrong sends him to seek a fugitive exorcist and the help of the friendly undead. His chief challenge is getting to the ghost before any of the various antagonists out for his blood get to him. Although it's enjoyable and easy to follow on its own, the second book builds on events from the first. It even picks up minor points from The Devil You Know and expands on them, suggesting that the series may have some overarching plot as well as these self-contained stories.
Anyone who enjoyed Carey's writing in his Lucifer and Hellblazer graphic novels will not be disappointed by his first two prose novels. His plotting is tight, and his dialogue crackles. Both books are hard to put down. He describes characters in clever and vivid ways ("she looked like a warden for the kind of immaculate women's prison that only exists in Italian pornography," p. 58) and fleshes them out with sharp dialogue and realistic motivations. Even Ajulutsikael, who could easily be described in quickly dulling superlatives, comes across as solid and intriguing. The situations and setting—no matter how fantastic or horrific—always feel real as well. Carey's matter-of-fact approach to imaginative horrors makes them powerful without seeming lurid or voyeuristic.
A great deal of these novels' appeal lies in Felix Castor himself. He plays music on his tin whistle to bind and banish spirits; you might say that every soul connects directly to a certain song. In the second novel, we learn that Castor's made quite a name for himself, not because his method is unusual—many exorcists use music—but because he's very good at it. Exorcism is Castor's special skill, but like any Chandleresque detective, he's not above calling in favors, telling lies, or picking locks to get where he needs to go.
Such a resourceful character can seem unchallenged, but Carey keeps Castor humble. Perpetually broke and usually loveless, living in a friend's house and working in the zombie neighborhood of Harlesden, Castor doesn't have deep satisfaction in his private or professional life. Two years at Oxford have bought him little more than some frequently imperiled friends and a trove of literary quotations that no one around him recognizes. Sending ghosts to their final reward might sound fulfilling, but Castor doesn't know if they really get any reward or even if what he gives them is final. His narration shows a battle between the desire to set things right and the desire to drink some whisky and pretend things are all right. A dry sense of humor keeps him sane and endears him to the reader.
Some readers will notice similarities between Castor and Hellblazer's John Constantine, a character Carey wrote for several years. Both are working-class magicians in something like modern-day London. However, Constantine is a conjurer who casts spells and summons demons. Castor is more of a specialist, dealing only with exorcism. Although he understands Latin and some spell casting, it's his inborn sixth sense—"Death FM," he calls it at one point—that shows him the ghosts, and music is his focus for describing and dismissing them.
Another major difference lies in their different Londons. Constantine resides in DC's Vertigo universe and has shared pages with various angels and demons, not to mention Swamp Thing and The Sandman's Endless. Castor's London is less defined, partly because it's seen through his eyes. Fix doesn't believe in gods or angels, but he's sure of Hell: he's met folks from there. Most citizens of Constantine's London have no idea about all the magic going on, but those in Castor's can see ghosts, and some people argue that the walking dead still have property rights.
The most important difference, though, is that Castor seems more ethical than Constantine. Many writers have penned Constantine, and some have written him as a con artist who involves his friends in his personal war against whatever power (holy or unholy) is annoying him at the moment. Carey wrote Constantine well, but he couldn't undo that history any more than he could remove the angels or the Endless from the Vertigo universe. Fix is a different sort of person—he's not too good to lie to his friends and not too careful with their cars, but he'll put himself in danger before he'll put them there. He would far rather protect them, and certain spirits of the wronged dead, than look after his own interests.
The only downside to the Felix Castor novels is that they're addictive; one hopes that Carey's years of deadline experience will keep him writing this well and this quickly. The Devil You Know arrived in the U.S. as a hardcover in July, and Vicious Circle will follow it in about a year. Stateside readers looking for a faster fix of Fix may need to order from abroad; both novels are currently available in the U.K. in paperback. The third novel, Dead Men's Boots, is just now on shelves in the U.K., and more are in the works. Carey is contracted for two more Felix Castor novels and has made allusions to plans for a sixth one. If these first two books are any indication, then fans of noir and the supernatural can look forward to many sleepless nights of reading.