Book review: The Devil Aspect by Craig Russell

The Devil Aspect - Craig Russell
*****


Craig Russell is well-known for his dark crime fiction writing, but The Devil Aspect must surely be his more ambitious and entertaining work yet, moving out of detective fiction for an even darker ride through Gothic historical fiction and mythology that takes us from Veles the Slavic God of the Underworld to Jack the Ripper, from the Gates of Hell to the origins of the Holocaust, and later even a little bit further than that.

There's an irresistible dark fascination to The Devil Aspect right from the outset, where a dangerous maniac known as Leather Apron has just killed his fourth victim on the streets of Prague, his methods similar to the Jack the Ripper killings in Whitechapel. In Prague in 1935 however, there almost seems to be an epidemic of madness and mental breakdown on the streets as Dr Vikor Kosárek arrives in the city. He's about to take up a post as clinical psychiatrist in the Hrad Orlů asylum, a castle with a dark past that currently houses just six inmates. These inmates however are collectively known as the Devil's Six and are the most dangerous mental patients in Central Europe.

A Jungian disciple, Dr Kosárek has a theory that he calls the Devil Aspect; a theory that the potential for madness lies in all of us and with the right trigger applied those most susceptible can be pushed towards acts of great evil. He wants to test this theory out through some revolutionary new treatments on the Devil's Six and his experiments lead to some surprising results. Meanwhile not far away in Prague - perhaps too close to the Hrad Orlů asylum - Kapitán Lukáš Smolák is receiving worrying reports that there may be a supernatural demonic aspect to the killer who is still at large on the streets of the city.

The Devil's Aspect is more than just a Gothic horror and there is definitely some real-world significance in the idea of madness infecting the people in this part of the world in 1935, with the German speaking population of the country falling under the spell of an Austrian maniac and his Nazi party on the other side of the border. Prostitutes, gypsies, Jews and others of 'impure' stock seem to be the main victims of Leather Apron and it's creating an undercurrent of unrest that is spilling over into discord in the bars and streets of Prague, a kind of mass psychosis that will afflict a whole nation and lead to even greater horrors to come.

Although the parallel gives it a little more substance, The Devil Aspect has much more going on than that. Russell also draws from Bohemian history and Slavic mythology, scientific exploration, parapsychology and mysticism, but there is also the dark fascination of delving under hypnosis into the troubled minds of each of the Devil's Six; each with their own twisted views and murderous actions, all of them still potentially very dangerous. It's a rich and ridiculously entertaining brew that ensures that there is never a dull passage in the book that unravels with plenty of shocks, twists and horror.

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