Source: 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.
Regular readers of this blog will know that one of the outstanding books of this year so far that I have been raving about is Craig Russell’s The Devil Aspect. To be fair, I’m not alone in the view that this is a remarkable book. It has already been optioned by Columbia Pictures; it has been described as
‘ A superior thriller, at once stylish, absorbing and compulsive’ by Laura Carlin, author of The Wicked Cometh and as ‘Dark, stylish and packed with jaw-dropping twists . . . an astonishing piece of work’ by M. W. Craven, author of The Puppet Show.
I have reprised my review below, but before that, I am delighted to have an opportunity to welcome Craig Russell to my blog for a chat.
Welcome, Craig. Congratulations on your new novel, The Devil Aspect, which is incredibly spooky and haunting. One of the things that helps make it so is the location. Can you tell me something about the importance of setting to your work?
For me, setting is extremely important—and by setting I mean not just the geographical location, but the period and the social, political and cultural context—the psychology of the people in a particular place at a particular time. The Devil Aspect is set in pre-war Czechoslovakia, the Fabel novels in contemporary Hamburg, and the Lennox novels in 1950s Glasgow. For me, these are much, much more than settings, they are characters in the books—key characters second only to the protagonist. And they have to be places and periods I can get into; settings that I find personally intriguing and stimulating and in which I can completely immerse myself. I often feel that being a writer is an excuse to make a living out of what otherwise would be seen as personality defects. In my case it is my need to become other people, to see the world through different eyes, walk different streets, have a different compass.
Tell us about the specific location for The Devil Aspect. It feels real. Is it?
The castle of Hrad Orlu, and the asylum housed within it, is entirely my creation—but it does represent an amalgam of several castles throughout the former Czechoslovakia; in particular the castle of Hrad Karlštejn, built by Holy Roman Emperor Karel (Charles) IV. It is a hugely forbidding place and incredibly gothic and Dracula-esque. It was on a visit to the castle that the germ of the idea that was to blossom into The Devil Aspect came to mind. I imagined what the castle would be like as an asylum … and, as they say, the rest is history.
All the other locations are real: the locations in Prague, the towns, the Bone Church in Sedlec, all are real places.
Are you a plotter or do you prefer to go where the writing takes you? Do your characters ever surprise you?
My characters surprise me all the time! My theory is that you create them and have an idea of their personalities, just as you know the personalities of real people, friends and family. The difference is your fictional characters form and develop in your unconscious. There have been many times that I have had a plan laid out for a character, but when I get to that point, he or she refuses to comply. It’s not as mad as it seems: you have such a clear sense of your characters’ personalities that it would jar for them to do what you had planned for them when they were first sketched out.
As for plotting. Every book starts off with three things: the ‘feel’ of the book—its tone, mood and atmosphere; the ‘themes’—what the book’s about, the ideas that will drive it, and what it wants to say; and the book’s ‘universe’—the natural and built environments, the social and historical contexts, and the characters who inhabit those environments and contexts. I also usually have a clear destination in mind—how the book is going to end. Other than that, I don’t conceive a rigid plot in advance. It’s more like a road map: I know my destination, some of the key sights I want to take in along the way, but otherwise I allow myself the freedom to take byways and detours. Personally, I think that’s absolutely essential to the creative process—that plotting woven into the writing of a book, not separate from it, is a dynamic and creative process.
Whether writing as Craig Russell or as Christopher Galt, you are clearly fascinated by the eternal battle between good and evil. Do you believe in evil as an entity or are you more with Kosarek on his devil aspect theory of human nature?
The Devil Aspect is set in the 1930s, immediately before the Second World War. My feeling is that the war was a pivot in our ideas about the nature of evil. By setting it in the 30s, where so many of the grand narratives were still widely held to be true, Evil with a capital ‘E’ was something in which even a scientist like Kosárek would see some validity. Nowadays, I think we have a more sophisticated and nuanced view, where we recognize evil as a lack of empathy. Because we are on this side of the war, we have seen monumental evil embodied in the most unexceptional, unprepossessing packages: Hitler, for example, or Adolf Eichmann, whom Hannah Arendt described as exemplifying “the banality of evil”.
That was why the time and the place was so important for me in exploring the theme of evil in The Devil Aspect.
Finally Craig, what were you listening to as you wrote the Devil Aspect? Do you have a playlist for each book?
Believe it or not, I have a Czech playlist which I listened to while writing the book. Most books have their own playlist. In the case of The Devil Aspect, it was a mixed bunch: Janáček’s Glagolithic Mass, Čechomor (Václav Havel’s favourite band), Václav Neckář and loads of others.
Thank you so much for joining me today. For ease of viewing, here is my review of 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’s novels have been published in twenty-five languages, four have been made into major films in Germany, in one of which he has a cameo role as a detective. He has won the CWA Dagger in the Library and the McIlvanney Prize, for which he has been shortlisted another twice, and has previously been shortlisted for the CWA Golden Dagger, the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, and the SNCF Prix Polar in France. A former police officer, Craig Russell is the only non-German to have been awarded the Polizeistern – the Hamburg Police’s Police Star.