Last year I praised Justin Robinson's Everyman for being completely fresh, original and, well, damn good. Unbeknownst to me, Robinson had released another novel just before Everyman, and I'm happy to say that, while City of Devils is completely different, my assessment is going to be more of the same: it's fresh, original, and damn good.
City of Devils is a detective novel with all the usual trappings: a stunning blonde seeking help from a rumpled private investigator; a seemingly simple case that becomes bigger with every lead; and a journey that takes our hero to the seedy underside of a big city, uncovering corruption involving the biggest players at the highest levels. The difference is this detective novel is set in an alternate reality where classic movie monsters like vampires, phantoms, gill men and gremlins share an uneasy peace with humans.
Now, it would have been easy for Robinson to drop a few of these monsters in as substitutes for humans in his detective story and call it a day. But what Robinson has done is build a fascinating, fully realized world that we really only get a peek at here. Robinson is very shrewd in choosing what elements he reveals fully and what elements he only hints at. We do get a complete understanding of the new rules of this world, one in which humans lost something called the "Night War" to the monsters. We know, for example, that humans are a protected species by law during the day, but are fair game at night. We know that humans need permits to carry things like silver, crosses and wolfsbane. But we don't learn much about how these monsters came into existence, and how the balance of power has tipped so far in their favor.
Robinson wisely chooses not to bog down the story with too much backstory. We get everything we need to follow along, which is just enough to want to know the rest.
Robinson builds the novel around the very human Nick Moss, the quintessential world-weary P.I. who scrapes out a living on his wits and little else. Moss is approached by shape-shifting movie star Imogen Verity for help in finding her husband, a city councilman-slash-mummy known as Juba II. The few leads Moss can scrounge up lead him on a wild path that crosses with, among other things, the local sheriff (a werewolf); a famous film director (a robot); a studio head and unofficial mayor (a crawling eye); a witch; a brothel that sells something other than sex, and a whole lot more.
Robinson imbues the book with a snarky sense of humor, some of which falls flat, but none of which diffuses the tension that builds in each chapter. He does a great job of moving the action at a quick pace, and there's a long chase scene about mid-way through involving Moss and a pack of sheriff's deputies that's as inventive as it is exhausting.
I was expecting a fair amount of cheese when I started the book, but what I got was so much better. Robinson treats both the detective and horror genres with much respect in City of Devils, resulting in a book that is smart, fun, and energetic. It's also a book that's aching for a sequel (or a bunch of them), and given that Robinson wrote a short story featuring Moss and published it on his publisher's website last Christmas, I'm hoping he thinks so, too.
City of Devils by Justin Robinson is available from Candlemark and Gleam.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.