A few weeks ago, I stumbled across The Devil Aspect by Craig Russell on a display shelf at a book store. It’s one of those books that instantly grabs your attention, with its intriguing title and unsettling cover art. I knew I wouldn’t be able to wait long to read it.
The Devil Aspect is a busy book, with two main plots intersecting. It starts in Prague in 1935. A series of brutal murders have cropped up, and a police chief named Lukas Smolák is on the hunt to find the culprit – known as Leather Apron – before he finds his next victim. Meanwhile, a young psychologist, Viktor Kosárek, has just stated working at the nearby Hrad Orlů, an asylum for the criminally insane. The castle-turned-asylum houses only six inmates – known as the Devil’s Six – who have been convicted of murder.
Viktor’s job is to uncover what he calls the “Devil Aspect” – the underlying trait within their “psychological immune system” that makes them murderous. To find this, he puts each patient into a narcosynthesis treatment, in which the patient goes into a calmer, almost dreamlike state in order to be more honest about why they committed their crimes. Viktor’s hope is that he’ll find a pattern that explains their violent madness. During these narcosynthesis treatments, Viktor interviews each inmate in turn, and each one tells the story of their murders from their own perspective. Each case is scarier than the last, keeping readers on the edge of their seat.
The Devil Aspect is divided into six parts, while each chapter focuses either on Lukas Smolák or Viktor Kosárek as they discover more about the crimes committed. The author’s writing is quite descriptive and detailed, sometimes more thorough than necessary, but never overdoing it. He adopts an old-fashioned, detective novel style of writing – fitting for the story and its setting – fully immersing the reader in 1930s Czechoslovakia. (This book is set during a time when that was the country’s name; we now know it as the Czech Republic.)
The story unfolds slowly, giving the reader time to fully settle into the plot and setting. Piece by piece, it grows more intense and complex as new suspects and clues arise. Are any of the Devil’s Six inmates involved with the crimes going on in Prague? Is it the chief of police? Is the murderer actually the Devil himself, as some characters suggest?
As new murders come up and as we dive into the inmates’ pasts, the book becomes fairly gory and detailed. There’s some freaky stuff going on in here, and it’s certainly not for the faint of heart.
One element that may surprise and delight the reader about The Devil Aspect is how its main stories intersect with other major themes. Mental health is a major point of discussion here, as well as the acceptance of mental health as part of a more holistic approach to health. The impact of racism on individuals turning to crime and on how they’re treated in the justice system also plays a role early on. Throughout the novel, we see how the early rise of Nazism wove into society and impacted people, even before the Holocaust began.
Beyond those details, The Devil Aspect also incorporates a lot of Czech and German words, making it feel more authentic in it setting. On top of that, the folklore of the German/Czech region also plays a large role in the book, something that adds greatly to the richness of the story. You don’t need to know much, if anything, about the regional folklore; its inclusion here will ignite your imagination.
There’s so much going on in The Devil Aspect – from its stunning setting to the intersection of other major social/political issues, from the detective mystery at hand to the unraveling of the mind – that it’s impossible not to find something to spark your interest. It will keep you on the edge of your seat and always guessing what will happen next. The book plays like a movie, and would work wonderfully if adapted into a film. (In fact, it’s already been licensed to Sony/Columbia Pictures for a movie adaptation, so get ready to see that!)
If you’re like me, after reading The Devil Aspect, you’ll surely recommend the book to several people and anticipate reading more from Craig Russell. This isn’t the first book by the Scottish author, but it is the first published here in the US.
It’s hard to say too much about The Devil Aspect without revealing some spoilers, but I can sum it up by saying it is a thrilling, terrifying, and intriguing book. It’s the kind you can read again and again, and one that will stand out in your memory. If you’re in the mood for a good scare, read Craig Russell’s The Devil Aspect.