City of Devils

city-of-devilsThe Short Version: Nick Moss is the only human PI left in Los Angeles.  Something happened after World War II – another war, the Night War – and turned a huge chunk of the population into monsters.  Classic monsters.  And when a shapeshifting actress hires Moss to find her missing mummy husband, he finds himself running the risk of becoming one himself.

The Review: There’s a very interesting analogy I mentally drew about two-thirds of the way through this novel – and that was to the pilot of the BBC’s superb Ripper Street series.  I’m reluctant to spoil the central mystery of this novel (or that pilot ep.) outright, so I’ll just say that I found the similarities particularly poignant.  In the face of monsters, it is a powerful authorial choice to reveal something far more horrifying – that’s also, deep down, interesting/stimulating in its newness.

Speaking of newness, I have to say that this is a new twist on both the LA noir style and on classic Hollywood movie monsters.  Our author, Justin Robinson, keeps the details of this horrific “Night War” relatively close to the vest – dropping us hints here and there, like how the war was “part-Three Stooges movie” based on what can kill certain monsters (like a well-placed bucket of water above the door), but mostly leaving it a question of how this all happened.  Something maybe related to the nuclear bomb?  Who knows.  But it was bad – and humans got the shortest end of the stick.

The relentless invention on Robinson’s part is fun: an early scene where Nick preps his house for nightfall and then deals with the onslaught of creatures seeking to turn him into one of them, establishing our protagonist’s personality as well as the rules of this scary new world, is delightful.  Similarly, a high-class bordello full of movie-set rooms is thrillingly described.  And the various ways these creatures interact with one another, the subtle hierarchies, the different things they’re afraid of, etc – there’s a lot going on here and Robinson strikes the right balance of relying on the reader to already know certain things (hey, silver bullets kill werewolves!) while also adding a bit of his own shading here and there (a gold piece of eight wards off a headless horseman – who knew?), working from within established myth to make his own distinct voice heard.  And he does it pretty well, to the point that most authors attempting something similar would be pleased to be as successful.

The case itself is pretty classic noir – there’s a dame, there’s a gang, there are several near-death escapes, there are corrupt cops, there’s a twist in the tale the whole time.  If it felt, at times, as though Robinson was losing the plot, he brings it all home in the end – and there are plenty of noir stories, even the classics, that go the same way: the hero, wrapped up in something far bigger, finds out that the original case is part of that bigger conspiracy.  And if the characters sometimes feel (quite appropriately) as though they were pulled from Central Casting, well, Robinson is committed to the noir genre here and it’s only right that his first foray (into what could, I don’t doubt, become a series) follow the character guidelines pretty closely.  He does change some things up, of course – Moss’ repeated failures to get a cigarette going are one of the best running gags in the book – but things stay relatively within the lines and that’s okay.  With a book like this, it’s not the end result but the getting there that matters and this is a great autumnal rip of a story, getting you there in style.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  If I hadn’t wanted to get this review out in time for the book’s publication, it would’ve been a fitting October read – fast, funny, full of monsters and frights and new riffs on age-old themes.  I like the world that Robinson has set up and I like Nick Moss – and while things felt a bit like a Hollywood lot at times (lots of lights on the facade, but no house behind it), I was happy to let the story rush over me instead of focusing too hard on anything in particular.  There’s a lot happening here, in a world-view sense, and it’s to Robinson’s credit that things hang together as well as they do.  It’s a fun take that nobody’s ever done before and that alone makes it a worthwhile read for fans of the genres at hand.


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