Latest Flash

Review: Devil in The Hole

A change-up today in The Gutter. . .

Chris McGinley reviews Charles Salzberg's Devil in The Hole.  

Review: Devil in The Hole

John Hartman is a killer. He kills his wife. He kills his kids. He kills his mother. In the world of the crime novel, this may not seem out of the ordinary. What is out of the ordinary is his fondness for Andre Gide, Saul Bellow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and even the exemplars of eighteenth century consciousness, like Alexander Pope. Charles Salzberg, author of Devil in the Hole (Down and Out Books), might have included Camus or Nietzsche on Hartman's reading list, because this admirable crime novel is existential in more ways than one.

Author of the much-celebrated Henry Swann series, Salzberg operates in another territory altogether here, creating a book both structurally ambitious and tonally unsettling. The story goes as such. Hartman is a successful businessman dissatisfied with his life, though he resides in a tony suburb in Connecticut and, to all appearances, lives the life many would envy. But there's something off here, something inscrutably dark about him. Actually, the guy murders his entire family in the first pages of the novel. 

And here's where Salzberg defies narrative convention. Be assured, this is not a whodunnit in any traditional sense, even though many of the elements of the detective novel are here. In fact, there are aspects of other genres, too: psychological thriller, journalism procedural, even true crime. In synthesizing these forms, Salzberg manages to deliver a satisfying postmodern thriller (contradiction of terms?) in which he explores the action of a solitary character and its affects on those who have come into contact with him through a host of varied styles and voices.

In each chapter a different character relates his or her experiences with Hartman, but what emerges never amounts to a complete psychological portrait of the killer, but rather a puzzling picture with innumerable different layers, some of which can be traced to Hartman's past, and some to other facets of his life. What's so compelling about this novel is that the examination of Hartman as a species of evil does not resolve itself neatly. Instead, it's the very act of interpretation we perform as readers that is so satisfying. The novel is a "mystery" in the truest sense of the word. We try to piece it all together in order to provide some kind of rationale for Hartman's crime. Maybe this can be done. Maybe it can't. Either way, the act of trying is enjoyable.

But there's no joy for most of the people drawn into Hartman's world, largely the recurring characters here: the cop on the case, the sister, the lover, and the reverend, among others. No, Hartman visits a collective spirit of anxiety, of post-traumatic stress, alienation, and general spiritual malaise on these characters. He's infected them, in fact. And so, in a way, it becomes their story as much as his. Again, the novel is existential in this respect, but never in a self-consciously overbearing or pretentious way. On the contrary, we gain insight into Hartman by way of those who feel compelled to talk and think about him, even if the action of talking and thinking about him is detrimental to one's psychological well-being. Like readers of a good true crime tale, they can't stop thinking about Hartman, about what he has done, even though they're worse off for it.

Hartman, too, relates his tale to us, and by slow turns we attempt to make sense of his psychoses. His story is every bit as engaging as those whose lives he has touched. And like those others,he too changes with time, with the knowledge of what he has done. But it's how he copes with it, how everyone copes with it, that is the dark and murky substance of this fine book.


Chris McGinley (reviewer) has appeared in Out of the Gutter, Near to the Knuckle, Yellow Mama, and Shotgun Honey (forthcoming). He teaches middle school in Lexington, KY.