So you solved Hell’s labour problems, foiled a fake kidnapping plot, and have successfully become a crimefighting superhero with the help of a demon. Oh, and you got the girl! What’s next? Try stopping your mother’s new lover from bringing about the end of the world (and the start of a new one) by writing the next draft of the book that is our lives! Costume Not Included hews pretty closely to its predecessor, The Damned Busters, but benefits from tighter pacing and much more interesting character development. As Chesney Arnstruther and his girlfriend, Melda, contemplate how to stop the world from ending, the righteous Lieutenant Denby and his superiors are closing in on the mysterious Actionary. Oh, and Satan is involved.
I was fairly ambivalent towards The Damned Busters. To be honest, Costume Not Included does very little to improve my opinion of the series. It shares many flaws with the first book. Notably, the opening section is slow and dull, with a lot of exposition covering the developments of the first book. While I understand that Matthew Hughes needs to bring new readers up to speed, there must have been better ways to integrate this information. Likewise, a great deal of the plot developments in this book occur as a result of pages of intensive dialogue between characters.
These structural critiques aside, I did enjoy this sequel more than the first book. Hughes’ writing is more comfortable now that I don’t have to spend so much time getting to know Chesney (whom I still don’t like that much). I enjoyed reading his relationship with Melda, and how that is affecting his relationship with his mother. I enjoyed his conversations with Joshua/Jesus about being a prophet and the effects that has on ordinary people. And, once again, he stands up to Satan and does an end run around the Infernal Prince’s gambit. Bravo.
Hughes also takes a gamble when it comes to the antagonist. In the first book, he gave us Nat Blowdell as a clear bad guy, complete with the climactic confrontation in Hell. Here, the conflict is subtler. Billy Lee Hardacre, labour lawyer turned televangelist, is still exulting over confirmation of his pet theory that the world is a book being written by God to figure out good and evil. He’s overdosing on the pride pills, and the angel helping him work on a new gospel (the Book of Chesney) isn’t helping in that respect. When Chesney refuses to be a prophet—but finds a suitable substitute—Billy Lee’s fascination slips into obsession.
Billy Lee’s descent from ally to antagonist is the most fascinating thing about Costume Not Included. I loved watching him justify manipulating and lying for the greater good. He is someone who genuinely believes he is doing the Lord’s work, and hence what he is doing is acceptable; the possibility that bringing about the end of the world could all be a Satanic plot never occurs to him! Meanwhile, the actuary who has demonic superpowers is actually pretty grounded.
Another rising star of this series is Lieutenant (now Captain) Denby. Ordered by his corrupt superiors to expose the Actionary however possible, Denby gets pretty close to uncovering the truth. I’m dissatisfied by how easily Denby seems to develop the time travel theory—Hughes doesn’t spend enough time fleshing out Denby’s character for me to gauge how realistic his reaction is, but my mental picture of Denby at that point didn’t seem consistent with this Denby who believes in time travel. But, what can you do? I did enjoy the detente between Denby and Chesney that resulted in their tenuous alliance.
Costume Not Included plays off the best and the worst of The Damned Busters, but I would say it’s a definite improvement. I can’t quite get excited enough to recommend or hype this book. The premise is cool, and the characters and story are competently done, but there isn’t something I can point to and say, “That! That is why you need to read this book.” Without that essential spark, Costume Not Included joins all the other barely-memorable but enjoyable books I’ve read over the years, doomed to be forgotten until I dust off this review and re-read it prior to reading the next one. And I will read the next one, which is something!