I have a thing for demon-summoning.
Wait, that didn’t come out right. I don’t have a thing for demon-summoning. As in, I don’t like summoning demons. Actually, I’ve never summoned a demon, but I imagine that if I did summon a demon, I wouldn’t much enjoy it. However, I suppose that there is a small chance that if I do, one day, summon a demon, then I might discover I enjoy it and start off on some kind of demon-summoning kick or addiction. At that point, we could say I have a thing for demon-summoning.
What I mean to say is that I tend to enjoy stories about summoning demons. This is why the early seasons of Supernatural captivated me (I stayed for the later seasons because the narrative deepened and Castiel is awesome). The Damned Busters plays into this predilection of mine. From the get go, Chesney Anstruther isn’t happy about accidentally summoning a demon. When his refusal to make a deal—which would cost him his soul, naturally—with this demon leads to a labour strike in Hell, Chesney finds himself in the middle of a very awkward negotiation. But it works out OK for him in the end, because he gets superpowers! Except it turns out that being a crimefighter with a demon sidekick is tougher than one might think (though if your answer was, “it sounds pretty tough”, then I guess you’re smarter than me—or just a smartass).
The first part of this book, which follows Chesney’s incitement of the labour strike in Hell, is totally unlike the second part, which concerns Chesney’s time as the Actionary. I’ve read several reviews that wish the first part had been jettisoned and one review that actually preferred it to the superhero narrative. I have to side with the former reviewers: the first part of The Damned Busters is slow and a little dull. As I read it I was thinking that it would make a better short story than a novel—indeed, from what I gather from the afterword, it was a short story that Matthew Hughes then expanded. Hell going on strike was a good short-story-length gimmick, but after the initial laughter died down, it quickly became tedious.
So thank God (who is Hughes, in this case) for the sudden changing of gears. Chesney’s apology to Satan is part of the back-to-work deal. In return, Chesney gets a soul-preserving deal with a demon who becomes a kind of familiar to him. Thanks to the demon, Chesney has crimefighting superpowers and can rush about as the Actionary, saving damsels in distress and generally feeling like his fictional hero, the Driver. He tries to impress the daughter of the head of the company he works for, but in so doing he comes to the attention of her father and his ambitions to fight crime as a political gambit.
Unlike the first part of this book, the second part develops steadily. At first Hughes delivers some of the same metafictional, self-aware banter and observations that populate superheroic fiction these days. Chesney’s commentary on his evolution as the Actionary is pithy but nothing we haven’t seen elsewhere. Fortunately, Hughes seems to recognize this, and the stakes get higher. He keeps us guessing as Chesney begins to recognize there is something more going on with Paxton’s C group than just “meta-analysis” for the purposes of fighting crime. Indeed, Chesney isn’t the only person involved who has a deal with a demon, and that makes things all the more interesting.
At one point early in the book, as Chesney watches the Reverend Billy Lee Hardacre mediate between Satan and the leader of the demons’ union, he wonders if he is really the hero of the story after all. It seems like Hardacre is doing the important work. It’s a valid question at this point, because Chesney doesn’t seem like hero material. Indeed, he’s a bit of a pig. But as the story develops, so too does Chesney—he’s still a pig, but he’s a more heroic pig, a character more worthy of carrying a story like this on his shoulders. Someone who deserves to thwart evil plans of world domination.
Alas, Chesney’s development from zero to hero is the exception and not the rule. The Damned Busters suffers from flat characters all around. Aside from Chesney, they are all essentially types of one kind or another in their descriptions, dialogue, and actions. Both love interests, Penny Paxton and Melda McCall, are prime examples of this. Hughes plays up Penny as the conniving heiress who always gets her way—and that’s all she is. Similarly, Melda is the tough-as-nails yet mercurial beautician who can handle herself but is attracted to the Actionary nonetheless.
In both cases, there’s nothing really deeper going on here. Normally with minor characters we at least get a peek at their motivations. We learn about their relationships with their parents. Where’s Penny’s mother? What are Penny’s aspirations, if any, beyond hanging around her father’s office all the time? Does Melda have any dreams beyond the beauty parlour? We never get a glimpse at the person behind the character. This is a huge problem, compounded by the fact that as much as Chesney improves, he remains a frail protagonist who is, if sympathetic, not all that enjoyable a person to hang around.
The Damned Busters has its moments. It’s humourous, and Hughes is great at using characters as gimmicks and devices. However, the book lacks any characters who generate enough emotional resonance to make the story more than interesting diversion. It’s competent and enjoyable but could have been much better.