The Devil Aspect is a slow burn, but it is often deeply disturbing and occasionally terrifying.
Scottish author Craig Russell’s American debut, The Devil Aspect, is so demonstratively gothic that it could have, in the wrong hands, become accidental satire. The setting is a dark and foreboding castle outside of Prague. That castle houses a mental asylum (naturally). There are butchers, treasures, mountains, storms, twins, blood and guts, fortunes and the possibility of demons and ghosts. Yet Russell proves himself capable of navigating this well-trod terrain, perhaps because of his commitment to and grounding in the pre-World War II world of what was then Czechoslovakia. Russell uses this complicated historical and political environment not only as a jumping point for historical fiction, but he also steeps The Devil Aspect in the lore, mythology and superstition of the time and place, making for reading that is tantalizing on many levels.
In addition to his exhaustive knowledge of ‘30s-era Eastern Europe, Russell is also very well-versed in the history of psychiatry. So much so that he was confident enough to make the novel’s main character, Viktor Kosárek, a student of Carl Jung. This element of the novel serves more than simple characterization; it is also of great concern to the plot.
The novel first follows Viktor as he studies six psychopathic killers at the aforementioned mental asylum, the Hrad Orlů Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Viktor is studying these six killers, known as the Devil’s Six, for one common “archetype of evil,” which he refers to as the Devil Aspect. This journey naturally ties in with the book’s other plotline, which takes place in Prague proper. There, policeman Lukás Smolák is on the hunt for a Jack the Ripper copycat killer known as Leather Apron. Eventually, Viktor and Lukás converge, and the quest for the Devil Aspect and Leather Apron intertwine.
Russell fills his novel with imaginatively gruesome details. These don’t simply apply to the crimes themselves, but also the perpetrators. For instance, each of the Devil’s Six gets a supervillain-esque nickname: there’s the Woodcutter, the Clown, the Glass Collector, the Vegetarian, the Sciomancer and the Demon. While some of these folks hold onto humanity, there is no Hannibal Lecter here, though there are some commonalities between The Devil Aspect and Thomas Harris’ Lecter novels.
For many novels, a World War II connection is thrown in simply because of authors over-indulging themselves or because Nazis still make universally acceptable villains. What Russell does well with the era is that he shows how the darkness caused by the world in which the Nazis were rising affected other corners of society. There is concern here with the value of life and the danger of life being undervalued. One of the more interesting ways in which this is incorporated is through vegetarianism, which plays a key part in the novel.
History factors into The Devil Aspect in a large way, and that’s outside of its temporal setting. Prague’s past, as well as the past of a rural village outside of it (where the Hrad Orlů Asylum for the Criminally Insane is located) are woven into the narrative, and evil is shown as not just the simple action of ill men and women but also something that is cultivated over time, pruned and fertilized by silence and secrets.
The Devil Aspect is a slow burn, but it is often deeply disturbing and occasionally terrifying. The real stars are—as they probably should be—the killers. But the settings come alive as well, and to a lesser extent, so do Viktor and Lukás, though their primary purpose is to introduce us to the villains and the evocative setting. With The Devil Aspect, Russell has made a scary and auspicious American debut, one that will particularly thrill fans of gruesome thrillers.