damned“The demon’s sudden appearance, along with a puff of malodorous smoke and a short-lived burst of flame, took Chesney Arnstruther by surprise.”

Some books become immediate favourites and capture you so strongly that you breeze through them at an incredible speed. Others become weights around your ankles, tying you down and you find them impossible to complete. But the literary world, like every other, is not that black and white, because every so often you find a book like The Damned Busters that does both to you.

Our hero, Chesney Anstruther, is a mild-mannered and introverted actuary who lives for numbers and doesn’t really understand other people. One evening, he accidentally summons a demon who won’t leave until Chesney has signed a contract giving him his soul. Chesney refuses (“You expect me to go back and tell that to my supervisor?” says the demon) and soon he is being chased by other demons who try and convince him that he owes them. And then something strange happens. Humanity seems to shut down and people have lost all interest in sinning. It transpires that sinning is what makes the world go round (without greed, people don’t want to work; without gluttony, people have no need for restaurants and food, and so on) As lethargy sweeps the planet, Chesney gets a visit from the Devil himself. Hell is on strike, and Chesney is the only one who can get the demons back to work.

Chesney brokers a deal with the Devil. He won’t give up his soul, but he will get the demons back to work. With the help of his mother, an angel and an evangelical preacher, a contract is signed, but it grants Chesney the right to call on his own personal demon, Xaphan, for two hours a day, during which time Chesney becomes the Actionary, the superhero that the city needs. Now armed with new powers, a know-all demon, and a knowledge of how to fight crime thanks to years of reading comic books, Chesney is on a mission to save the city and maybe win the girl.

The book shifts direction throughout like a rickety rollercoaster, which works for some people, but unfortunately here lets Hughes down. The first eighty pages are all about Chesney dealing with the demons, Hell going on strike and the peace treaty. It is intelligent, funny and wonderfully creative. However, after that, it turns into a story of Chesney trying to become a superhero, as well as his day to day job as an actuary, working with crime statistics for his domineering boss W. T. Paxton. At this point, the whole thing begins to fall down. Unfortunately, the concept of Hell going on strike and all the demon characters who are introduced early on (including the Devil himself) are far more interesting than Chesney’s job, his attempts at hiding his secret identity and the human characters. Supporting characters are all forgettable, uninteresting and I didn’t find myself clicking with any of them, or worrying about what was going to happen to them.

Towards the end of the book, the focus shifts back to Hell and the Devil and it becomes interesting again, and to give the book credit, the final line is an absolutely stonker of a hook and regardless of whatever bad stuff I’ve said here, I’ll almost certainly be continuing with the series. Chesney is a great character, and one I feel a lot of warmth for, and I also really enjoy Xaphan the demon. There’s a great explanation for the behaviour of God, but I wish it had been expanded on further. The book is also intensely creative when it comes to swearing. Not a single expletive is used in the book, but many are implied with smart phrasing, and Chesney has his own method of swearing using nonsense words.

It feels like it’s trying to be two stories in one and, while that’s not necessarily a bad thing by any means, it just so happens that one story is infinitely more interesting than the other. The novel’s main threat (of the non-Hell variety, anyway) never feels particularly dangerous, more of a cardboard cut-out of a villain who’s there just so the Actionary can have someone to fight.

All in all, it’s a good book – clever, witty and original – but the majority just, unfortunately, does feel like a slog. The pay-off is good, but I don’t know if it’s worth all the middle chapters of flat characters and uninteresting set-ups.