If it’s true that the Devil has all the best tunes, He (and it’s almost always a He) tends to get all the best films, plays and books as well – with one notable exception. Milton, Marlowe, Goethe, and Byron all depicted versions of Satan/Mephistopheles/Lucifer, and in the last 100 years the representations are innumerable.
One regular narrative trope is where the Devil leaves Hell to visit us here on Earth, notably in films such as The Omen, Angel Heart and even The Witches Of Eastwick. The stories range from the sublime, (Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle), through the mawkish (Meet Joe Black), to the ridiculous, (God help us, Little Nicky – if you ever needed proof that neither deity exists then that film is surely it).
Jonathan Whitelaw‘s latest novel, Hellcorp, takes the above idea, runs with it, and has great fun with it. Whitelaw quotes Mark Twain at the beginning of the book, “Go to Heaven for the climate. Hell for the company.”, which gets to the heart of our fascination with all things Hellish – it’s where the fun is to be had. The reason that endures is a whole other conversation.
Hellcorp opens with our anti-hero in consultation with the Pope. He wants to make Hell legitimate, and feels that in the Pope there is a man (and in this case it IS always a man) who should understand. This desire for change is rooted in an unshakeable feeling that He is in a rut – His unreciprocated lusting after His secretary, Alice, (particularly poignant in the current climate), only exacerbating the feeling.
Constantly being the bad guy has taken its toll. He decides that His work is now so well-understood, so set in stone, that it can be carried out in His absence. To this end He sets up a company, the titular Hellcorp, which can handle things while He takes a well-earned vacation. The only problem is approval for leave is needed from His line-manager, who just happens to be God, and there are conditions. He can have a holiday as long as He solves a mystery which has even the Almighty stumped.
After some fairly one-sided negotiations, the Devil finds himself in Glasgow – where better to blend in? – where he awakes on an operating table. There He meets Jill Gideon. She will become the Watson to His Sherlock as they traverse the city trying to solve ever evolving crimes, although perhaps Moonlighting‘s David Addison and Maddie Hayes is a better comparison as the two constantly, and entertainingly, bicker and fall out. Questions of faith, (although not as you might think), trust, guilt and revenge are explored, but with an unusual theological bent.
The unconventional detectives find themselves coming into contact with a host of Glaswegian ne’er-do-wells, as well as Demons – the two often indistinguishable. These are individuals who make even the Devil shake his head in disbelief. What becomes clear is that Jill’s role in this tale is central, and as her desire for retribution becomes stronger, so her partner, unexpectedly, becomes almost valorous – a twist which no one sees coming.
Hellcorp brings to mind John Niven’s The Second Coming, (where God takes a holiday, leaving his son, JC, in charge), Alasdair Gray’s Fleck, (his take on Goethe’s Faust), but also the political tribulations and machinations of Yes Minister, Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter Of Life & Death, and even Andy Hamilton’s excellent radio comedy Old Harry’s Game.
It is yet another example of the innovation and diversity in evidence in the sometimes maligned genre that is Scottish crime fiction. In recent years we have had books from writers as distinct as Graeme Macrae Burnet, Graham Lironi, Louise Welsh, Douglas Skelton, Doug Johnstone, Denise Mina, Manda Scott, Charles E. McGarry, and Stuart David, among many others. All these writers are markedly different from one another, and to them you can add Jonathan Whitelaw. If you have read the above review and come to the conclusion that Hellcorp is not for you then I have failed you. Buy it, read it, and if you don’t then Hell mend you.