Tuesday, September 1, 2015

City of Devils (Justin Robinson)

It comes as no surprise that Justin Robinson, author of City of Devils, is an accomplished novelist with more than a dozen books under his belt. It takes a certain of amount of practice to be able to sustain a comic tone against the realities of the book's premise. City of Devils takes place in a Chinatown-meets-Who Framed Roger Rabbit fantasy reality in which World War II was followed by a "Night War" between humans and monsters, of a couple dozen varieties - witches, vampires, ogres, gremlins, werewolves, and so on. Robinson deals with the Night War events as backstory known to the narrator and presumably his listeners, therefore cleverly avoiding the necessity of fleshing it all out.

The upshot of the Night War was an uneasy truce in which monsters clearly have the population and the power, but are restricted from preying on the dwindling number of humans during daylight hours. At night, anything goes. In a confrontation, the monsters can be defeated (rather too easily, in my view) by the use of many of the time-honored charms and warding-off substances, and a few new ones.

Our protagonist, Nick Moss, the last remaining human detective in the greater Los Angeles area, carries a shop's-worth of these protections around with him at all times, which must ruin the line of his jacket. But Nick has worse problems to deal with. Not being able to safely go out at night handicaps his detective practice, and every monster in sight is trying to "turn" him, make him another of their kind. The pumpkinhead that hangs out on his lawn is particularly desperate and annoying (and funny).

Nick generally maintains his good cheer, despite the fact that this would be a distressing world to live in. Occasionally he does get rueful:

Still, had to warn the robot and the crawling eye that the gremlin was going to kill them. And then hate the fact I lived in a world where such a sentence was said with a straight face.

It ain't all sunny for the monsters, either. They turn humans out of desire - it is their equivalent of sexual desire - but also out of necessity; they cannot "reproduce" in any other way. Since the supply of humans will eventually run out (sooner rather than later, presumably; human children are scarcely mentioned in the book), and since monsters CAN die (we get several spectacular examples), the end-game is not looking particularly good for either side.

A few premise quibbles may dawn on you if you're a spoilsport. Where the monsters "came from" in the first place, and how new varieties keep appearing - Nick can't remember human flies appearing "before about six months ago" - is not exactly made clear. The nature of Nick's or any other humans' resistance to being turned is not spelled out, either; Nick mentions that he likes being human, but it would take a good deal more heroic resolve than that to survive in such a world. The werewolves on the LAPD who want to bring Nick onto the force clearly do so because of his surprising skills, but I didn't notice a discussion of how much of a human's character and memories survives the transition to monsterhood.

Nick specializes in missing persons - missing human persons, who have usually already been turned - but at the start of the novel is asked by a female doppelganger movie star to find her mummy husband. This leads Moss into a labyrinth of monster equivalents of prostitution, pornography, and drugs, all very cleverly handled. The plotting of City of Devils is superior and a sign of a real craftsman.

Many Hollywood touches creep into the narrative, which you could argue about as to whether they are part of the satire or not. As mentioned, none of the monsters' stabs at turning Nick are effectual, and in a number of chase sequences, he evades his pursuers with aplomb (although he sure does get messed-up, necessitating frequent trips to his drycleaner). Although Nick's escape maneuvers are minutely described, I'm not sure that makes them any more plausible, and his relative ease in pulling them off reduces the monsters' scare factor by about 50%. In truth, Robinson's array of nasty beings are more akin to the classic movie versions of monsters that plague Abbott and Costello than to the legends behind them. There is not a single entity in the book who could give you the willies the way monsters in late Seventies and early Eighties horror movies could - Alien, The Fly, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers

But all of my reservations noted, City of Devils is finally a most entertaining read, and if it leads to a series (that could expand on some of my question marks), no one would be complaining.

No comments:

Post a Comment