Fount of excellent indie band The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle startled the world with one of the most amazing debut novels, Wolf in White Van,” back in 2014. Mysterious, literate, human, it haunts me still. Follow-up Universal Harvester, in 2017, also intrigued. Plenty of hype built up for his new “Devil House,” and it is justly deserved. Somewhat misleadingly cast as a mashup of “gripping” storytelling and experimentation, it is fair to say the novel is much more the latter.
Revolving around the methods and ethics of an established true crime writer investigating an unsolved, mid-1980s “satanic” double homicide in a small town north of Los Angeles, the storyline begins conventionally but then veers into a strange medieval tale, a retelling (in the unusual second person present tense) of an earlier double killing, a letter from a victim’s mother, and in a final twist, the perspective of the writer’s childhood friend, covering the final write-up of the book and featuring a devious twist easily forecast by the reader. Darnielle is brilliant at conveying inner thoughts and locations, and is never rushed, so that the final result is an unapologetic, experimental discourse on the pleasures, pitfalls, and morality of true crime writing.
John Darnielle is a fascinating novelist indeed and Devil House only adds to his growing reputation.