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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Damned Busters - Matthews Hughes


So, this was an interesting and uneven novel.  I've written a lot of reviews, but this is by far the most difficult because I didn't like or dislike the novel.  I almost considered not writing a review at all because I was just so ambivalent.  Matthews Hughes' The Damned Busters is a wholly original novel from Angry Robot Books.  It is not however the novel I wanted to read.  Let me explain.

Filled with fun cartoony characters, Hughes pits Chesney Arnstruther, an actuary of no particular distinction, who accidentally summons a demon, against the hordes of the underworld.  Oops.  Everyone gets dropped into a bit of a pickle when he refuses to sell his soul thus sending Hell into labor negotiations from... Hell.  Shenanigans ensue as the denizens of Hell go on strike.  As part of the bargain that puts Hell back to work, Chesney gets the use of his own personal demon who he uses to become a crime fighter.
For the first third of the book the shenanigans are a rousing success.   Satan, a few angels, a televangelist, and Chesney all find themselves locked in a room hassling over a contract for Satan's overworked minions.  It's so absurd it's brilliant.  There is loads of snappy dialog and hilarious situations that could only come from unionized labor.  Hughes does well in the space creating a series of encounters that are often laugh out loud funny.

The unfortunate part is the brilliance only lasts for the first third of the book.  Once Chesney strikes his deal with Hell the book descends into a pretty boring crime fighter yarn.  There are awkward stereotypical encounters with women.  He is taken advantage of by a few not-so benevolent powerful people.  Not only was the novel less interesting by this point - a lot of Hughes wit seems to fall away as well.  What was a light witty novel that read more like a situational comedy, de/evolved into a metaphysical discussion about the meaning of existence.

By the end of The Damned Busters I was completely caught off guard by what was a very esoteric conclusion that left me unsatisfied.  Like the second half of the book, this ending wasn't what I wanted to read.  I felt betrayed by the promise Hughes made in the opening chapters when he failed to deliver the same level of wit and charm throughout.

I would almost recommend Hughes' novel based solely on the opening.  The idea is incredibly clever and he writes it with rare aplomb.  I can't help but wonder if The Damned Busters would have been better suited as a novella that ended when Hell went back to work.  If that were the case I'd be giving it my highest recommendation.  As it stands, I'm not sure it's a great investment of time and money.

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