Craig Russell, author of two well-received crime series (Lennox set in 1950’s Glasgow / Jan Fabel set in contemporary Hamburg) maintains he is more of a gothic writer than a crime writer. Having read his terrifying latest, I’m not going to argue. It is full of gothic tropes:
– It is set in Prague, a city Russell describes as a gothic filmset.
– It is grotesque. There’s a serial killer on the loose, whose depravity is on par with, nay, may even exceed that of Jack the Ripper.
– The supernatural is juggled with the rational, so that we’re never quite sure what’s going on … well, not until the author is ready to reveal.
– The main protagonist is called Viktor ….
Prague, 1935. Viktor Kosarek is a Jungian psychiatrist, who believes that the potential for evil (The Devil Aspect) resides in the subconcious, and that it is triggered to action by great trauma. However, perpetrators do not remember their evil acts, precisely because they are driven by the subconscious. Kosarek is given the opportunity to test his theory when he lands a job at the Hrad Orlu mental asylum. Therein are housed the Devil’s Six, Czechoslovakia’s most infamous murderers. Kosarek drugs them during his interviews in an attempt to delve into the subconscious and to uncover the devil aspect. In the course of these interviews, not only does he uncover psychopathic violence, but also unsettling commonalities. Most of the six insist that they were egged on by an external force, a malign influence. They claim it was the Devil himself.
Meanwhile, down in the city, police inspector Lukas Smolak, is chasing down “Leather Apron”, a serial killer, a copycat Jack the Ripper. The first witness tells a story full of strange coincidence with those of the asylum inmates. The one clue that the killer leaves behind sends Smolak to the asylum, as one of the inmates is an expert in the type of object that was found. Slowly but surely, more and more deductions point to the asylum as the place of origin for the current series of killings.
How can that be? While it is a secure, locked-down institution, it is also a place of myth, allegedly built on the opening to hell. Weaving in dark tales from Slavic myth, genocidal killings from the past, and a foreboding of the horrors to come in the near future to his “gothic filmset”, Russell builds up the malignity of the atmosphere to an extraordinary pitch. I made the mistake of reading this alone at night. I switched to afternoon sessions pretty quickly.
Really this novel is not for the faint-hearted at any time of day. (And yes, you can believe the blurbs.)
At Bloody Scotland, I asked Russell if the confessions of his six were based on real cases. “If you thought it was terrifying reading it, just think how terrified I was writing it – particularly when all this depravity was coming from the recesses of my own mind,” he answered. However, he did admit that one of the inmates originated from his previous life as a police officer. That was the time it took 15 officers to hold down one woman!
Beneath the horror, The Devil Aspect makes for rich and thought-provoking reading. Yes, the inmates are monstrous, but they are also human. If I were a psychologist, I’m sure I’d appreciate the grounding in Jungian union concepts of the subconscious all the more. The pacing does suffer from the repetitions that come from there being so many case histories. But there’s something here that makes six a kind of diabolical pre-requisite, isn’t there?