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WesternSFA
The Damned Busters
To Hell and Back Series #1
by Matthew Hughes
Osprey, $7.99,416pp
Publication Date: May 31, 2011
Another Angry Robot publication, I couldn't resist the ideas that this book advertised on its back cover. I wanted to find out how someone could accidentally summon a demon while playing poker. I wanted to find out how strange a superhero duo could get. And I especially wanted to find out what would happen when Hell goes on strike.

It turns out that the latter isn't a particularly great scenario. In Matthew Hughes's mind, the opposite of bad isn't good, it's merely meh. However, his enticingly dry use of language builds us up to that moment with a growing grin and we leave it with a whole series worth of ideas. Hughes was given a three book deal on this pitch, all of which are now out, and I hope we get more.

Chesney Anstruther is the sort of person you wouldn't notice. He's an actuary with a social life that's non-existent. All he does is play poker with four other actuaries with non-existent social lives and, in building a table to host their revolving fortnightly game, he conjures up a demon. It wasn't intentional and he's too aware of risk and reward to rank a lifetime of pleasure over an eternity of torment.

And this creates an anomaly because Hell isn't used to people saying no. So this impasses builds to point where the demons go out on strike and, without the voices of temptation needling us, nobody does anything bad any more. The solution is brokered between Satan and a Throne of God by the Reverend Billy Lee, a lawyer turned novelist turned TV evangelist who believes that he's figured out the meaning of life. His theory is that God is a novelist and he's writing a book so that his characters (i.e. us) can lead him to an understanding of morality. The inconsistencies in legend are due to rewrites that missed odd details here and there in cleanup.

Out of this imaginative debacle comes a solution through the best deal the devil ever gave a human. Chesney Anstruther, actuary and social nobody, will become a superhero for two hours out of every twenty-four, with powers gifted him by the demon he conjured up. That's Xaphan, who hasn't done much since the thirties so comes across as a sort of Edward G Robinson character, merely in the form of a sort of weasel with sabretooth fangs who has a fondness for rum and Cuban cigars. And so off goes the Actionary to fight crime, which turns out to be a lot tougher than he expects, even with the powers Xaphan can give him.

I'd never heard of Matthew Hughes before picking up this book, but I'm already working my way through the sequels and will pick up some of his other novels after that. He's a gifted writer with a glorious sense of humor that's contagious enough to make it hard to put 'The Damned Busters' down. There's a wonderful story here, populated by wonderful characters, but it's his writing that keeps us reading. He has a knack for using everyday words in precisely the right way to make us squeal with delight.

He reminds me in many ways of Tom Sharpe, who wrote a string of comedy novels about unlikely heroes in hilariously calamitous situations. Both authors tell us much about the banalities of life by extrapolating well away from them. In sending his leads through the wringer, Sharpe explored notably British concerns, centuries-old institutions with centuries-old rituals; he had a strong grounding in the class struggle. Hughes focuses strongly on religion, but takes shots at a host of modern institutions too.

Of course, Sharpe's outlandish ideas didn't venture into the fantastic, always remaining grounded in believable, if thoroughly unlikely, surreality. Hughes leaps firmly into the fantastic with his very first sentence and remains there throughout. When you cast Satan himself in a recurring role, there's only so much grounding you can do.

I liked Chesney Anstruther a lot, though I probably wouldn't get on with him well in real life. He has the sort of polite, down-to-earth stubbornness that we see in so many classic British films; I would totally get behind an Ealing adaptation of this novel. On one hand, he's a complete nonentity, unremarkable in every way and ignored by the world. On the other hand, he's comfortable enough with who he is to be able to say no to Satan himself, in so doing becoming an unlikely hero that we can't help but get behind.

This is completely his book. As much as a few other characters might do well in their own stories, they inherently play second fiddle to him here. Xaphan is the one with the most potential, but he runs the danger of being unable to grow; Hughes does find a few ways that he can keep fresh. The Reverend Billy Lee is a key cog in this wheel, but he has to stay away from the focus to play his part. Chesney's mother, the overtly religious cause for much of his stubbornness, has potential but again could become painted into a corner in the sequels if Hughes isn't careful.

There are others worthy of mention, but to do so would involve spoilers. Let's just say that there's an inevitable conflict in Chesney's previously non-existent love life that doesn't surprise much but shouldn't be spoiled. The businessmen who have their own uses for the Actionary also progress roughly as we expect, but they should be able to do so for new readers too, so I'll shut up there.

And I must leave this review because I'm only so far into its sequel, 'Costume Not Included', and I must return to it with all due haste. ~~ Hal C F Astell

Click here for a review of Costume Not Included.

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