Throughout an extensive career scripting excellent comics like Lucifer, Hellblazer, the new Crossing Midnight, and a handful of Sandman spin-offs, Mike Carey has frequently delved into the hard-bitten, detail-rich side of horror-fantasy. But the detail frequently gets too thick in The Devil You Know, a supernatural thriller in the Cast A Deadly Spell/Dresden Files vein. Throughout much of his debut novel, Carey writes exactly like a comics writer trying to learn the tricky balance of scene-setting and action in prose; his stiff, overlong descriptions of people and places sound like he's laboriously describing imaginary panels to the artist who didn't join him this time out.
Still, buried just slightly below all the excess verbiage is a quintessentially quality Carey story, packed with ambitious ideas and knotty twists. In the world of The Devil You Know, ghosts have recently started to return en masse, for reasons unknown; most just stand around forlorn and harmless, while a few possess their old bodies, or find creepier ways of rejoining the physical world. But a small number aggressively haunt or assault the living, which means work for Felix Castor, a rough-edged, straight-out-of-the-noirs Philip Marlowe type who also happens to be a professional exorcist. Though theoretically out of the business, he reluctantly takes on a simple assignment to exorcise a London archive ghost, but the archive's staff are aggressively off-putting, the situation doesn't add up, and a demon informs him that this is the job that will kill him. Against his will and better judgment, he gets emotionally involved in digging up the ghost's history, and a procedural mystery opens up, complete with threatening thugs, a rival exorcist, and a paranormal femme fatale.
It's easy to imagine what Devil would look like as a comic book, with the clunky descriptions converted to atmospheric images, and the smart-ass banter and sharp action sequences free to move at the quick pace they call for. It's even easier to see the few narrative twists that would turn it into a Hellblazer plot arc; Felix Castor owes a lot of character traits to John Constantine. But Devil wouldn't just make a good comic, it'd make a terrific film, thanks to the powerfully escalating tension, iconic characters, and cinematic imagery. Carey has a second Felix Castor book out in Britain, with a third due in fall. Here's hoping that the later books are smoother, that they're due to be imported alongside this first entry, and that ultimately, this franchise won't stay limited to book form.