Devil Said Bang by Richard Kadrey
Warning: This review may contain spoilers of earlier SANDMAN SLIM books.
I admire writers who can create fast-paced, intricately plotted stories that still have layered, complete characters. To me, that’s the prose version of juggling eggs and chainsaws at the same time. In Devil Said Bang, Richard Kadrey’s fourth SANDMAN SLIM book, he accomplishes this feat while tap-dancing and simultaneously playing blues harmonica.
When Devil Said Bang opens, James Stark, whose Hellion arena name is Sandman Slim, is still in Hell, but he’s in a… well, let’s say, a managerial position. He’s surrounded by damned souls, resentful Hellions and a ruling council of fallen angels who want to see him dead. Exploring Lucifer’s palace in Hell’s capital city of Pandemonium, Stark discovers a strange weapon that appears to be angelic in origin. He also figures out that one of his Hellish enemies can possess others. This is a problem, but Stark is actually a little bit more worried about how to get back to Los Angeles and his new crush, Candy.
Ultimately, Stark is successful in getting out of Hell, but the L.A. he returns to is not the one he left. It’s not only the little things (he’s been gone for three months without a word to anyone; Candy is seeing someone else,) it’s some big things too. The sky has turned green, Catalina Island has disappeared and a little girl ghost in a ruffled blue dress is murdering mortals with a butcher knife.
Stark’s whole personal “Scooby gang” is onstage in Devil Said Bang. The heretic priest Traven plays a key role in figuring out what is happening. Kassabian and Candy are on board, as well as Vidocq and the mystical healer Allegra, and so is Brigette, the retired-zombie-hunter-and-porn-starlet. Even the enigmatic Mr. Munnin, the subterranean collector/hoarder with the interesting secret identity, helps out.
Behind the murdering ghost and the slowly melting reality is Stark’s old enemy Aelita, a crazy angel. Aelita plans to murder God and she has already killed part of him. She hopes to punch a hole in our reality and let in another, older deity. If that happens, things will not go well for anybody on Planet Earth.
Aelita’s scheme and the various conspiracies in Hell create a plot with as many loops, twists and knots as a ball of yarn after the kittens have been at it. As someone who knows the underbelly of both Hell and L.A., who is much smarter than he admits, who survived in Hell’s arena for eleven years, Stark is still capable of misreading a clue or underestimating an enemy, and even though he is the toughest of tough guys he still has to rely on his friends sometimes. This fallibility creates suspense and makes the twists more plausible.
In his brief down moments, usually when he is driving, getting drunk or waiting to spring a trap, Stark struggles to decide where he fits. He hates Hell, but unfortunately he understands it, and the Hellions, more than he wants to. He hates L.A, but it’s home. He thinks of himself as a monster, but is ashamed to tell Candy some of the things he did when he was ruling Hell. He can be wryly self-deprecating, as when he says, “I need crib notes and blue prints to make ice,” or “I looked like old roadkill in new boots.”
As with all the SANDMAN SLIM books, Kadrey reaches for the unusual or funny detail to create texture. Stark describes a Malediction cigarette (Hell’s only brand, apparently — how did that happen?) as smelling like “a tire fire in a candy factory.” My nose itches with the smell of burnt rubber, and burnt sugar, every time I reread that.
Hell isn’t righteous exile. With all your secret handshakes and horseshit rituals, you’ve made the place into one more members-only gated community. All you people need are Mercedes SUVs and illegals to clean your pools and you couldn’t tell Hell from Brentwood.
Stark is a character who wears his scars on both the inside and the outside. For a hard-boiled, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, armor-plated, foul-mouthed tough guy, Stark cannot stop the little moments, the impulses toward decency. When he works to save the dreamer Patty, or comes up with a better “ghost gig” for the ghost of Cherry Moon, someone from his old life, when he shows generosity to an adversary by searching for the soul of the man’s wife, Stark reveals the human and heroic aspects of himself. Stark wonders if he has a soul, but we don’t. We know he does.
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