Source: Netgalley Review copy
Publication: 7 March 2019 from Constable
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? Only the Devil knows. And it is up to Viktor to find out.
I was at Iceland Noir recently and was struck by how many of Scotland’s prominent crime writers cited Craig Russell as a positive influence in their reading journey, and there and then I resolved to try one of his books. Where better, then, than to start with his new novel, The Devil Aspect?
It does not take long to appreciate what a fine writer Mr Russell is. Starting The Devil Aspect, I immediately felt transported to the 1930’s. From the way people speak to an understanding of the culture and community of Czechoslovakia, Craig Russell has captured the mood and mores of a people at a time of turbulence and unwelcome change.
In Prague, these troubled times re underlined by the fear struck into the hearts of the townspeople as a result of the brutal murders of several women; murders which have an unsettling similarity to those of Jack the Ripper. This murderer, dubbed Leather Apron, is being pursued by the police force led by Kapitan Lukas Smolak, but forensic evidence is hard to come by and when at last some is found, it is hard to credit that it could be the work of a known petty criminal whom they take into custody.
German fascism is on the rise and the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia is not far away. Our protagonist is psychiatrist Victor Kosárek, headed for the most notorious asylum in central Europe; Hrad Orlu Asylum is a fortress of a castle high on a cliff face, seemingly impregnable. The castle is feared by the villagers that surround it not just because it currently houses six of the most fiendish serial killers known as the Devil’s Six, but also because it has an unpleasant history that goes back into folklore memory.
Victor Kosárek has a head full of theories after studying under noted psychologist Carl Jung and he has come to the high security asylum to test his theory that the incarnate evil that is embodied in each the six sadistic killer patients stems from a common phenomenon known as The Devil Aspect- an aspect of human psychology that is responsible for dark impulses. Viktor believes that if he can, through their subconscious, reach this aspect, he may be able to understand and and possibly cure their malevolent, macabre impulses.
With wonderful detail and precision, never putting a foot wrong, yet laying a trail of false clues up and down the mountain, Russell explores the ways in which folklore, history, religion, and psychology come together to explain how people behave and how they justify that behaviour; all the time with the rise of fascism hovering over our shoulders..
As I was quickly sucked into this fabulously gothic tale of madness, horror and foreshadowing worse to come, I was struck by how beautifully resonant the atmosphere is. In many ways I was reminded of the writing of Bram Stoker and Robert Louis Stevenson, for this is a literary book that will more than hold its own alongside Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein.
Beautifully researched, the parallels between the savage murders and the unspeakable horrors of the Third Reich to come are ever present, leading to a very real sense of dread in this reader.
Verdict: Craig Russell has created an astonishing virtuoso piece of gothic horror writing. It is utterly immersive, authentically complex and completely propulsive. I was by turns transfixed, terrified and gripped. This is a must read for all fans of literary fiction, great crime and horror writing.
Craig Russell is an award-winning, best-selling and critically-acclaimed author, published in twenty-five languages around the world. The Devil Aspect was acquired by Jason Kaufman, Dan Brown’s editor at Doubleday. The movie rights to the Devil Aspect have been bought by Columbia Pictures. Biblical, his science-fiction novel, has been acquired by Imaginarium Studios/Sonar Entertainment for development into a major TV series. Four Jan Fabel novels have been made into movies (in one of which Craig Russell makes a cameo appearance as a detective) for ARD, the German national broadcaster, and the Lennox series has been optioned for TV development.
Craig Russell won the 2015 McIlvanney Prize for ‘The Ghosts of Altona’
– was a finalist for the 2017 McIlvanney Prize for ‘The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid’
– was a finalist for the 2013 Ellis Peters Historical Dagger
– was a finalist for the 2012 Crime Book of the Year (McIlvanney Prize)
– won the 2008 CWA Dagger in the Library
– was a finalist for the 2007 CWA Duncan Lawrie Golden Dagger
– was a finalist for the 2007 SNCF Prix Polar in France
– is the only non-German to be awarded the highly prestigious Polizeistern by the Polizei Hamburg.
Follow Craig on Twitter @TheCraigRussell