Please welcome Simon Kurt Unsworth to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Devil's Detective was published on March 3rd by Doubleday.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Simon: Thanks for the invite, Qwillery!
As for the ‘when’, I can pinpoint that pretty accurately – in school, at 13, I wrote a story for an English class and the teacher gave it a high mark. It was a Stephen King rip-off, but the teacher’s praise made me think I could write and from then on I was hooked. I’d loved writing the story, so for someone to like something I’d loved doing was hugely pleasing, and that’s pretty much when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’d always written stories, but that was the first time I’d had them responded to so well (it was especially pleasing that doing this thing I loved, basically making stuff up, got me good marks at school – I mean, this was homework but it felt like something I’d do to avoid homework!). As for the ‘why’, that’s both more complicated and easier to answer: the complicated bit is to say, I had to write because of teachers and lessons and exams and I enjoyed it and started to think I was pretty good at it and I enjoyed it and I practiced and I got better at it, but the easier answer is this: I never really had a choice. The stories are in my head and I have to get them out.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Simon: Pantser, absolutely! I start, and then somewhere in the middle I tend to have to stop and work out where I am and where I’m going. At the beginning of any given project I usually have one or two images in my head, different scenes from different points in the plot, and my initial job is to try to connect them and fill in all the gaps that appear whilst creating the connections.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Simon: Being strict enough with myself to do it. Working from home, it’s too easy to wander off and make a coffee and then watch an episode of Bones or The Blacklist and eat biscuits, or go out for a walk - I live in the Lake District, in the UK, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth, in my experience anyway, so a walk for me is to be exposed to beautiful, dramatic scenery that makes me feel good about myself and my space in the world. Sometimes, I can lose hours just wandering around the hills, time I should be using to write.
When it comes to writing, there are sometimes scenes that are tough or plotlines that I struggle to sort out, but mostly it comes fairly easily; it’s my concentration and attention-span that cause me trouble. I start a sentence and then….oh shiny things….
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Simon: Well, obviously Stephen King – I can't think of anyone that writes horror who isn't influenced by the King. Even if you write stuff that’s entirely unlike him, I still think you’re reacting to the influence he has over everyone in the field and over the field itself. Personally, I think King’s earlier stuff (‘Salem’s Lot in particular) is untouchably magnificent and I’m happy to wear his influence on my sleeves! M.R. James is a major influence on the kind of ghost stories I write, as is T.E.D. Klein, and Junji Ito’s Graphic novels (especially Uzumaki) are key shapers on how I think good, intricate bleak fiction should look and feel. Outside of horror, I’m influenced (especially in my worldview) by comedy, so Spike Milligan, Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall, Bill Hicks, Billy Connolly and Robin Williams have definitely moulded by my approach to things and this gets reflected in the kind of fictions I create. Music is important to me, so groups like The Sisters of Mercy, Jane’s Addiction, The Bad Shepherds and Bellowhead all add their moods and tones to my writing, and I can often tell what I’ve been listening to when I read my stuff back later.
TQ: Describe The Devil's Detective in 140 characters or less.
Simon: The detective novel goes to Hell…
TQ: Tell us something about The Devil's Detective that is not in the book description.
Simon: Male human prostitutes that get bought and used by demons are called “Genevieves”. Demons feed by chewing the flesh of humans to release the dark emotions it contains, so the more fear and pain and unease they cause, the more they have to eat. Feathers are important.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Devil's Detective? What appealed to you about writing a genre blending novel - thriller, noir, horror?
Simon: The basic idea for The Devil’s Detective (including the main character’s name and the ending but very little else of the plot, curiously) has been kicking around my head for around twenty years, but the actual inspiration came from my best friend, Steve. I rang him one day and asked him which novel I should start as I could couldn’t decide – the haunted children’s home one, or the weird one about the policeman in Hell? He said he liked the idea of the one in Hell, so that’s what I did… As for writing a genre-blending novel, I didn't set out to do that – I thought I was writing a horror novel that happened to use some of the narrative tricks and wear some of the clothes of noir and detective novels. It was only when I’d finished it that other people told me that they thought I’d written a thriller that used the narrative tricks and wore the clothes of a horror novel! For me, it was just about writing the story I wanted to write, it wasn’t supposed to be anything…
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Devil's Detective?
Simon: Honestly, very little. Because the Hell I created is fairly idiosyncratic, I had lots of freedom and wasn’t too bothered about any kind of accuracy towards existing depictions of the afterlife. The majority of the background work I did was so trawl through various dictionaries of demons and superstitions and witchcraft and pick the names and descriptions of creatures and myths and obscurities that I like, all of which I then cheerfully corrupted to my own ends and stuck into the story.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
The Man of Plants and Flowers was the easiest. He appeared on the page fairly fully-formed, and his voice was always very clear in my head as I wrote him. I like creating grotesques so most of the demons came out easily and felt relatively simple to flesh out, and I think (I think!) I managed to give them separate personalities. As for the hardest, probably Fool as he’s the character that changes the most and has the most complex role in the story (from my perspective, at least). There’s another character involved in the novel’s end (who I won’t name for fear of giving something away) who I had to be careful with – not because they were hard to write but because I had to use a very light touch to make sure I didn't make their role in the end of the story too obvious early on. Whether I managed it remains to be seen…
TQ: Which question about The Devil's Detective do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Simon: Would you like us to pay you a million dollars to make a film of your book? Yes please!
And more seriously: is the Devil’s Detective actually a commentary on some element of the society? And the answer is, not intentionally, no - but I think it does contain a commentary on how I see things going at the moment, and that it reflects a certain disgust I feel about the direction of travel that the UK’s politics (at the very least) is taking and the kind of society it risks creating.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from The Devil's Detective.
Simon: “The house was blind but not mute, and it screamed at them” is one of my favourite lines from the novel. “Even demons have souls, Fool, and can become prey to those further the hierarchy” is probably the other line I like most that doesn’t give anything away about the story. See? It’s all about pain and being a victim…
TQ: What's next?
Simon: Generally: spending time with my wife Rosie and stepchildren Mily and Lottie, playing zombie board games with my son Ben, walking the hills above Sedbergh, wine, good food and horror movies. In writing terms, next is the sequel to The Devil’s Detective, which has the working title of The Devil’s Evidence. After that, I really don’t know – a lot will depend on how these two books do and whether anyone wants to read any more novels by me! At some point, I’d like to write a full-blown haunted house novel and bring back the main character from my portmanteau of ghost stories, Richard Nakata, and there may be another Fool novel bubbling somewhere in my head. I’m writing a horror movie script with the actor Ian Brooker (go and watch The Casebook of Eddie Brewer), which I hope to have finished in the next few months, and I owe a couple of short stories so I should probably do them at some point soon. I don’t really plan, not anything more complicated than ‘tomorrow I eat pizza’ anyway, so the best I can say is, watch this space and time will tell.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Simon: My pleasure, and thanks for having me!
The Devil's Detective
Doubleday, March 3, 2015
Hardcover and eBook, 304 pages
Debut novelist Simon Kurt Unsworth sends the detective novel to Hell. In The Devil's Detective, a sea change is coming to Hell . . . and a man named Thomas Fool is caught in the middle.
Thomas Fool is an Information Man, an investigator tasked with cataloging and filing reports on the endless stream of violence and brutality that flows through Hell. His job holds no reward or satisfaction, because Hell has rules but no justice. Each new crime is stamped "Do Not Investigate" and dutifully filed away in the depths of the Bureaucracy. But when an important political delegation arrives and a human is found murdered in a horrific manner—extravagant even by Hell's standards—everything changes. The murders escalate, and their severity points to the kind of killer not seen for many generations. Something is challenging the rules and order of Hell, so the Bureaucracy sends Fool to identify and track down the killer. . . . But how do you investigate murder in a place where death is common currency? Or when your main suspect pool is a legion of demons? With no memory of his past and only an irresistible need for justice, Fool will piece together clues and follow a trail that leads directly into the heart of a dark and chaotic conspiracy. A revolution is brewing in Hell . . . and nothing is what it seems.
The Devil's Detective is an audacious, highly suspenseful thriller set against a nightmarish and wildly vivid world. Simon Kurt Unsworth has created a phantasmagoric thrill ride filled with stunning set pieces and characters that spring from our deepest nightmares. It will have readers of both thrillers and horror hanging on by their fingernails until the final word. In Hell, hope is your worst enemy.
The Devil's Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth presents a different view of Hell. This is not Dante's Hell but a very desperate Hell, where people have jobs to do and, as the book description points out, having hope is what makes this Hell so hellish.
Thomas Fool is a bureaucrat in Hell, an Information Man, who barely has a job to do until he's asked to investigate a ruthless killing. Normally he'd not investigate a murder but his boss wants him to find out what is going on. The demons too want him to find out what is going on. There is an important delegation visiting Hell and they often tag along to see how Fool will find the killer. Fool has no idea what he is doing really, but learns how to investigate as the story progresses. He's the everyman (if the everyman was dead and had no idea who he was) caught in a situation not of his making. His journey and transformation over the course of the novel is riveting and unexpected.
The murder mystery is well done. Unsworth writes a suitable series of red herrings into the narrative to keep you guessing. The murders are monstrous even by Hell's standards. While Fool is clearly the lead, the supporting cast is equally intriguing. Unsworth creates some very memorable characters from the grotesque to the fanciful.
Unsworth's descriptive powers are exceptional - whether he's describing a particularly gruesome murder, or the way Hell looks, how information is retrieved from a dead body, or Hell's bureaucracy. Unsworth brings his version of Hell alive in extremely dark tones. He does not shy away from the horrific elements of the story.
I really love how Unsworth writes. It's lyrical and carries you along what is really a very, very bleak story. The ending of the novel surprised me, but also made perfect sense in the Hell Unsworth created. The Devil's Detective is grim, often gruesome and a genuinely terrific debut.
Photo by Irena Vettese
Simon Kurt Unsworth was born in Manchester in 1972 and is beginning to despair of ever finding proof that the world was awash with mysterious signs and portents that night. He lives in an old farmhouse miles from anywhere in the Lake District with his wife, the writer Rosie Seymour, and assorted children and dogs. His neighbours are mostly sheep and his office is an old cheese store in which he writes horror fiction (for which pursuit he was nominated for a 2008 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story). He is irritatingly tall but after years of frowning is no longer grouchy, owns a wide selection of garish shirts, several pairs of cowboy boots, six bolo ties and a magnificent leather waistcoat. His beard is growing truly wild and he spends most of his life in need of a haircut.
His latest collection, Strange Gateways, is out now from PS Publishing, following 2011’s critically acclaimed Quiet Houses (from Dark Continents Publishing) and 2010’s Lost Places (from Ash Tree Press). His stories have been published in a large number of anthologies including the World Fantasy Award-winning Exotic Gothic 4, the Gray Friar Press’s Terror Tales of the Cotswolds, Terror Tales of the Seaside and Where the Heart Is, the Ash Tree Press’s At Ease with the Dead, Shades of Darkness and Exotic Gothic 3, Stephen Jones’ Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead, Ellen Datlow’s Hauntings and Lovecraft Unbound, and Salt Publishing’s Year’s Best Fantasy 2013. He has been in six of Stephen Jones’ The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and he was also in The Very Best of Best New Horror. He has a further collection due, the as-yet-unnamed collection that will launch the Spectral Press Spectral Signature Editions imprint. The Devil’s Detective is his first novel.