Okay, so the rundown is as follows. Hell's Horizon is a damn good detective story. It's a creepy mystery novel full of the surreal horror and unnerving violence that marked its predecessor. The dialogue and atmosphere are top-notch, and even if you can guess some of the plot twists before they hit, the way they're presented makes them feel newer and fresher.
Unfortunately, if you're squeamish, this is not the book for you. When the violence comes, it comes in loving detail and some truly grisly scenes.
But in the end, I highly recommend this one. Both as part of the City Trilogy and as a book on its own. Please do check it out.
More as always below.
"If you are incapable of dealing the final blow, then I will do so in good time. Never expect another to extend the hand of mercy on your behalf."
- Paucar Wami
To be perfectly honest, I expected Hell's Horizon to get less surreal than it eventually did. It was probably because where Procession of the Dead, the first volume in Darren Shan's magnificent (so far) City Trilogy, started off bizarre and kind of had to introduce a lot of concepts, Hell's Horizon started off kind of plain. Like it wasn't trying to live up to anything. And sure, there were small hints to the lunacy the series can occasionally reach (Horizon and Procession take place in approximately the same time period), but nothing completely blindsiding. I was actually kind of shocked that Darren Shan had written a fairly straightforward crime novel without the creepy Lynchian touches that made Procession of the Dead, well, Procession of the Dead.
But then the book promptly stuck its foot out and tripped me over. And then...well...read on.
Hell's Horizon is the story of Albert "Algiers" Jeery, a member of the Troops, the elite security force of eccentric and enigmatic crime boss The Cardinal. He's got a solid job, good friends, a friendly relationship with his ex, and a very uneventful day. Apart from being part of the private army of a barely-sane mob boss and having a very shaky truce with The City's lead detective, he's pretty much a regular guy. He even has a girlfriend of sorts that he sees every now and then when they both need a specific kind of stress relief. And Al's day remains uneventful until he decides to fill in for a colleague and pick up a mutilated body from the city's morgue/mortuary complex. A body that turns out to be his girlfriend, Nicola Hornyak. A body that The Cardinal strongarms Al into investigating, presumably in the interest of "self-improvement". While Al protests, no one refuses The Cardinal, not for very long, and he begins his investigation into the mysterious death.
And then things get weird.
It begins when Al uncovers a web of sex, death, blackmail, and spiritualism. And when the City's monument to Manco Capac keeps popping up as a central location. But things don't get really weird until Paucar Wami, the City's own ageless snake-tattooed angel of death, starts to show up all over Al's leads. Before he knows it Al is embroiled in a mystery involving Wami, the blind Incan priests who seem to control the city from behind the scenes, a serial killer with a thing for sun god imagery, and some odd questions about his own parentage and his weird ability to heal people with his hands. But there's something strangely personal about the events happening around Al, and it may cost him his life to figure out who's behind all of this, and indeed why.
I suppose the thing I like the most is the way the book sets itself before the detective becomes a detective. When we meet Al, he's just another mook in The Cardinal's private army. A highly-placed mook, but no different than the scores of Troops already seen in the series. This is interesting to me because the reader gets to see the eventual transformation. Al has to learn how to be a detective from the suspects he interviews. He spends most of the story stumbling around the central clues and actually trusts a surprising number of shady characters involved in his investigation. It actually felt kind of tongue in cheek, and when he gets in over his head, you know it wasn't necessarily because he missed something, but because this is literally his first case. And you can tell that while he's handling it the best he can, he's making all kinds of rookie mistakes, but it never feels like Al is stupid. Usually in a noir like this, the guy at least has some idea of where to go. He's a cop. He has friends. He's been steeped in a criminal background. But Al doesn't have any of that, and I thought it was an interesting way to go about it. A detective story where the detective tries to detect, but really shouldn't be,
Second, the atmosphere has to be praised. Where a book like Private Midnight might hit the wrong method of feeling dated, and LA Confidential is definitely more a product of its time and place than anything I could care to mention, Hell's Horizon has a nice time-displaced quality that reminds me of maybe Mulholland Dr. or Dark City*. It could be anywhere. It could be anywhen, for that matter, though it sticks to a somewhat modern world. It should also be praised because while keeping all the beats of the usual noir story, it manages to branch out in weird and interesting ways. And even better, the book never loses its weird, dreamlike edge. The kind of commonplace surrealism that made Procession of the Dead really cool to read comes back here, and when it does, it hits with enough force to spin the entire plot around it.
And finally, the dialogue and characters are still amazing. Particular standouts this time are the rather paternal Bill Casey, Al's cop friend who helps him start his investigation; Doctor Sines, the blackly comic head of The Fridge (the City's morgue and mortuary), and of course in his second supporting turn for the City Trilogy, the fearsome assassin Paucar Wami, who enters the plot carrying the severed head of a supposed copycat and then moves on from there. What makes Wami such an interesting character for me is that he's easily the nicest character in the entire series, and his verbal mannerisms are very polite and sometimes even jovial. However, what he does is far from any of those things, as he takes unnatural delight in slaughtering anyone who even minorly inconveniences himself (or, once he forces himself into the investigation, Al). There aren't many good things to say about Al and his own delivery, as he's a world-weary man trying to process what's going on around him and serves as kind of a surrogate, but he's familiar and comfortable and it's at least easy to understand why he's doing what he's doing.
But I have to give a warning here. What was simply brutal violence in a few parts of Procession is full-on grisly gore in Hell's Horizon. A serial killer story is already pretty brutal and grisly on its own, when you involve a man who keeps severed heads in his fridge and nails a white supremacist's eyes to his nipples, especially on the "good" side, then it has to get pretty dark. It's clear Shan borrowed a bit from Ellroy and then decided perhaps that for his surreal horror trilogy he needed to go a little further than that. Also, as this is the second book of a trilogy, it appears to be setting up the third book. Finally, if you have read the plot synopses of book three, or have read Procession, some things will be spoiled for you. This is inevitable.
In the end, though, this is a must-read. It takes the strange urban-fantasy notes of its predecessor and mutates them into something frightening and ridiculous, where you're just as liable to laugh out loud at what's on the page as recoil in fear and disgust. It's worthy of a place alongside Procession of the Dead, and definitely worthy of a place in your collection if you don't mind some creepy surrealism and lurid gore.
- Nocturnal by Scott Sigler
- City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte
- The Thin Executioner by Darren Shan
- Mainspring by Jay Lake
*Actually, considering what happens in Dark City, it would be entirely appropriate.