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Issue #125 - January 2006

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One Hell of a Job

By Cheryl Morgan

Back in 2001 Liz Williams got a BSFA Award nomination for an Interzone story called "Adventures in the Ghost Trade". It featured a certain Inspector Chen, who specialized in supernatural crimes, and it was rather good. Little did I know at the time, but Williams had actually written an entire Inspector Chen novel (and I still donít know which came first). That novel is finally seeing print from Night Shade Books, and I am at a loss to know why it has taken so long.

Before we get into the story, however, let me direct your attention to the superb cover by Jon Foster. It you are reading this on the web site you should be able to see a thumbnail of it. This is the cover that had everyone at World Fantasy Con going, "ooh, ahh," and buying the book. It really is lovely.

Anyway, as I said, Inspector Chen specializes in supernatural crime. This, inevitably, means that he must have dealings with Hell. Indeed, the entire case around which this novel, Snake Agent, is built involves the kidnapping of the ghosts of innocent young girls bound for Heaven and putting them to work instead in Hellís brothels. Dealing with Hell is not easy. Chen is Chinese, and therefore used to impenetrable bureaucracies, but Hell can make even the British National Health Service seem positively friendly. Fortunately Chen knows far more than most humans, let alone most police detectives, about Hell. He has a good informant.

He turned and looked at his wife. In the dim light of the houseboat, her pupils had expanded until they lay like dark wells among the elegant planes of her face. Only a thin rim of crimson delineated each iris. In this light, Chen thought with a rush of affection, she might almost be human.

Then there is his partner. For the purposes of this case Chen is required to work closely with Seneschal Zhu Irzh of Hellís Vice Squad. Heís young, single, and a bit of a lad, but not so bad as demons go, as long as you donít insult him.

"Are you accusing me of having principles?" The demon said, outraged. Chen did not see the demon move, but the unwavering tip of the katana was suddenly at Chenís throat. Zhu Irzh took a gliding step forward; Chen back away until he was up against the wall. He stared along the black blade, to meet the demonís golden eyes.

Of course things are never quite that simple. The interests of Earth and Hell are not always closely aligned, even on joint investigations, especially considering that Zhu Irzh is secretly working for the First Lord of Banking, one of Hellís most powerful ministers. Then there are those busybody nuisances in Heaven who disdain to act directly in worldly affairs but who get seriously stroppy if their agents, of whom Inspector Chen happens to be one, fail to follow correct procedure. Not to mention the matter of the professional demon hunter that Beijing has sent to help with the case. You know the sort: never laughs, utterly dedicated to the cause, black leather trenchcoat, big sword and gun, only hobby would be watching Clint Eastwood movies, if he allowed himself hobbies, which as a devout Maoist he does not.

"This is most unorthodox! To knowingly involve a hostile in the course of an investigation displays a degree of ideological unsoundness that I can only condemn."

And if all that wasnít bad enough, the case turns out to involve Chenís in-laws who are simple vendors of gourmet blood and not well equipped to deal with Infernal politics. Thankfully Chen has a visa allowing him free passage into Hell where he and Zhu Irzh can set about bringing the bad guys from the Ministry of Diseases to justice (or at least what approximates for justice in Hell).

"You have television here?" he whispered to Zhu Irzh. Somehow this was an aspect of Hell that had passed him by. The demon merely grinned.

"Who do you think invented it?"

All of which adds up to a highly amusing and entertaining romp. It is the closest thing Iíve seen yet to a Kim Newman vampire novel. Williams takes the whole Chinese mythology angle absurdly seriously and combines it with some biting satire about the real world. If the likes of Michael Chabon and Chris Roberson want to revive the spirit of the pulps, they need Inspector Chen stories.

Given the fabulous cover and Night Shadeís new found prominence in the US publishing industry Iím expecting this book to sell well. I hope so, because I foresee several other Inspector Chen novels in the near future.

Snake Agent - Liz Williams - Night Shade Books - hardcover

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee