Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk
Let me start with what I loved about C.L. Polk’s 2022 novella, Even Though I Knew the End. I loved the premise of the magical system at play here, and the story delivered a 1940s Chicago, Illinois, that was both familiar and convincingly strange. The Wink, a lesbian bar that has rolled through several incarnations in its lifetime, is a sheer delight of evocative description.
I liked the fast-moving plot and Polk’s spin on the hard-boiled detective story. Helen Brandt was a promising auspex or magical practitioner (her original area of expertise was astrology), destined to assist her brother in the Brotherhood of the Compass. When a car accident derailed her entire life, Helen made a decision that was anathema to the Brotherhood — and to many others in this world where conventional Christianity (presumably all organized religions) and magic live side-by-side. Now Helen works as a PI, most frequently for a mysterious, wealthy woman named Marlowe. Marlowe sends Helen to investigate a terrible murder and a deadly blood-magic ritual, and Helen soon figures out that someone is taking human souls. Helen needs to solve this quickly, for reasons that are carefully foreshadowed and deftly revealed.
Edith, a devout Catholic and brilliant photographer, is the love of Helen’s life, and she insists on helping Helen with the case. Helen also encounters her brother, now well-placed in the Brotherhood — and those meetings are, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. With demons, soul-bargains and rogue angels, the story carries the feel of a mean-streets-Chicagoan detective story, barreling down to a bittersweet noirish ending.
Aspects of the plot and world-building will seem very familiar, especially to fans of the show Supernatural. Polk’s characters and world-building put enough of a slant on those aspects that it didn’t bother me. Edith got short shrift in this tale, though. Other than the fact that Helen loves her, and she’s a “good” person (birds perch on her fingers when she feeds them at the window, for instance) neither she nor the relationship is deeply developed. It’s clear early that each woman holds a serious secret from the other — I wish that aspect had been explored in more depth. The novella gives most of its attention to the plot, but I wish I could have seen a deeper emotional involvement between these two women, and more discussion of what Helen’s choices mean for them — especially in light of the very ending. To be fair, for important plot reasons, Edith can’t get much time on the page.
At the end, Helen is a convincingly battered paladin, her tarnished armor providing exactly enough contrast for the hypocrisy of the always-right Brotherhood, a nice noir avatar for Chicago’s cold and gritty streets. Even Though I Knew the End was an intriguing read that held my interest, and I loved this world. A bonus was the book’s beautiful cover. Fans of Polk’s work won’t be disappointed.