So imagine one day Mickey Spillane wakes up and decides to write a fantasy. Could’ve happened, right? In some alternate universe where magicians make deals with fallen angels and alchemists’ accidents lead to immortality? I pretty much figure that he might have produced something very much like “Sandman Slim.”
We meet the protagonist, James Hickok, commonly called “Stark” as he’s escaping from Hell where he’s been held prisoner for eleven years for the amusement of the resident hellions. The thing is, Stark’s not dead. He isn’t a cursed soul who’s slipped back into the world of the living but rather a man who rubbed a lot of powerful people the wrong way, and got sold into slavery in what he refers to as “Downtown.” In fact, Stark apparently can’t be killed, so when he returns to earth, determined to take his revenge, there’s not too much that can even slow him down, much less stop him. You’d imagine that would make him unstoppable and the story pretty darn short, but the truth is that he’s a man who is hungry to be human, to feel human things again, to forget the eleven years of slavery and get on with whatever sort of life he can manage. And what slows him down most are the bonds of affection, and a sense that things aren’t quite what they originally seemed, that there was more to the deal that sent him to Hell than he ever imagined.
Kadrey has a clean noirish style that suits his subject matter, and Stark is far more than an avenging spirit or mindless killing machine. He’s smart and thoughtful, and he makes mistakes. The rest of the characters, including an alchemist who is Eugene Vidocq, the man who created the Sûreté — the French national security bureau — are mostly pretty well fleshed out and interesting. The exception is the man Stark most wants to destroy, but as we see almost nothing of him through most of the book, and know him only by reputation and Stark’s memories, it’s not easy to get much of a handle on him.
I enjoyed the hell out of this book (Excuse the pun.) and am looking forward to reading its sequel.
- Vidocq Society (ravenbanshee.wordpress.com)
- Vidocq Society – the murder club (guardian.co.uk)
- Five Literary Crime Novels (thedailybeast.com)