Being released this month from Angry Robot books (a UK division of Harper Collins) is Matthew Hughes‘ new book The Damned Busters, first in the “To Hell and Back” series. I know Matt as a fellow writer in SF Canada, the Canadian professional writers’ association, and have had the chance to read a couple of his stories on Henghis Hapthorn and Luff Imbry. The stories struck me as not just competently written but having a fluid mastery of language and style that leaves me thinking magic is involved. Of course, Henghis is a detective, and I find the best mystery novels are like magic in how the author worked out plot and solutions to dire murders, mysterious disappearances or misleading heists. Matt has already proven himself a master at this.
I didn’t know what to expect from the review copy I received but knew that I’d at least read a masterful story. Whenever I read any book I also look at the quality of the book and publisher. This includes the package as well as the editing. The cover is what I’d call delightful and tells me right away there is going to be humor in this story. It’s done in a cartoony or comic book style that would not work for several titles but I know this is going to include a demon and a superhero. The book is a 5×7 (or close to) trade format, not too large and bulky, and comfortable to hold in the hand.
The editing/proofreading itself is fairly clean with very few errors that my copy editor’s eye picked up. The worst though is misspelling the main character’s name on the back cover. Ouch. There are a few odd word usages such as “sneaked” instead of snuck (one is more British and one more American and since Canadian English is a bastard cross you can just read about it here), and “comix.” We use comics this side of the pond so I can only presume these are UK preferences. Yet the punctuation is distinctly the N. American style so I must presume this is the edition meant for distribution here.
Now, the story. There have been takes on making deals with the devil, with ingenuous twists and some spectacular losses. We start with Chesney Arnstruther and his accidental summoning of a demon. Accidental is new but not outstanding. Where will this go? Sure enough, Chesney, a nerdish actuary who seems to be a person with Asperger syndrome has caused a big fuss in Hell because he refuses to sign the contract or accept the deal. This causes Hell to go on strike. The first three chapters sum up nicely with Chesney, although nerdy and in love with number crunching, managing to work a deal that doesn’t render his soul to Satan. I thought this could have been a short story, or novelette, and when you read Matt’s afterword the idea did indeed start this way.
This isn’t a bad thing at all and sums up one act within the story arc. I should mention that Hughes’ characters have fairly Dickensian names, or those that inspire images and feelings about the characters as Dickens’ best work did. Arnstruther evokes someone who might stutter or be ardent but who is not a Trump or a Rothschild of the world. There is the televangelist Reverend Billy Lee Hardacre who is what we would expect but then much more. W.T. Paxton and his beautiful blond daughter Poppy Paxton are Chesney’s foils and possible helpers. Polly (as well as Melda McCann), true to the time-honored tradition of comic book love interests of old like Superman, joins the ranks of the names that repeat the first letter (Lois Lane, Peter Parker, Clark Kent, Lana Lang) and I believe Matt is paying homage to this, but only slightly. I must also believe that with the intelligence and insight that Hughes has given in his other stories that there’s no accident with the Dickensian touch to the names.
Hell and Satan are not that unique in their domain but some of the demon descriptions are, and there is always that touch of the Hughes’ trademark wry humor. What happens when a mostly anti-social, highly intelligent, pretty good in the good-vs-evil fight number cruncher makes a deal with the devil? Some would go for fame, riches, power or lust but Chesney chooses to do good as a superhero likened after his favorite comic book, about a UPS courier called The Driver. And like most heroes, Chesney has a sidekick, a reluctant Jimmy Cagney acting, rum swilling demon named, Xaphan.
But being a superhero isn’t so easy, as Peter Parker well knows, and Chesney must face other demons than Hell’s; a possible manipulation of forces seen but not known, a disgruntled detective and two women who seem to be attracted to the hero uniform. Chesney thinks it’s all simple and that he’s thought everything out but it gets convoluted, and one deal with the Devil can lead to tricks and traps.
Hughes’ bow to comic books is carried off well. There are also not many writers that can use the word “darkling” where it fits so perfectly, or “wuthering.” Wuthering…I don’t think anyone has dared to use it since Wuthering Heights. If there were any faults with this book I would say I don’t really get the title and it seems awkward. Damned, sure that refers to all the goings on with Hell. But Damned Busters? It’s a little vague. I’d also hope where this book has a strong-willed righteous mother and two rather feisty femme fatales who veer some from stereotypes that we might see more variance in the second book but those are minor quips.
Since I”ve been “sinning” and eating cheese, which I shouldn’t I’ll compare this story to a cheddar cheese (which I do love). It’s not like Velveeta which casts aspersions on the good name of cheese. Nor is it some cheap plasticky, slightly bouncy orange-colored thing. It’s not a Kraft cheese nor one you would find in most chain grocery stores. It is a cheese of respectable lineage from a specialty shop; a tongue tingling, well-aged, firm cheddar where the cows were sung to every morning while they were being milked. I’d give Damned Busters a solid eight cheese wheels worth of fun and entertainment. A Hell of a good read.