"A blood-pumping, nerve-shredding thrillerelegant, edgy, ingenious. Craig Russell conjures not one but two unforgettable settings: Prague between the wars, pulsing with menace, and a Gothic mental asylum, as exciting a house of horrors as I've ever visited. You'll enter both with dread. You'll dwell in them with relish."
A. J. Finn, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Woman in the Window
Prague, 1935: Viktor Kosárek, a psychiatrist newly trained by Carl Jung, arrives at the infamous Hrad Orlu Asylum for the Criminally Insane. The state-of-the-art facility is located in a medieval mountaintop castle outside of Prague, though the site is infamous for concealing dark secrets going back many generations. The asylum houses the country's six most treacherous killersknown to the staff as The Woodcutter, The Clown, The Glass Collector, The Vegetarian, The Sciomancer, and The Demonand Viktor hopes to use a new medical technique to prove that these patients share a common archetype of evil, a phenomenon known as The Devil Aspect. As he begins to learn the stunning secrets of these patients, five men and one woman, Viktor must face the disturbing possibility that these six may share another dark truth.
Meanwhile, in Prague, fear grips the city as a phantom serial killer emerges in the dark alleys. Police investigator Lukas Smolak, desperate to locate the culprit (dubbed Leather Apron in the newspapers), realizes that the killer is imitating the most notorious serial killer from a century earlierLondon's Jack the Ripper. Smolak turns to the doctors at Hrad Orlu for their expertise with the psychotic criminal mind, though he worries that Leather Apron might have some connection to the six inmates in the asylum.
Steeped in the folklore of Eastern Europe, and set in the shadow of Nazi darkness erupting just beyond the Czech border, this stylishly written, tightly coiled, richly imagined novel is propulsively entertaining, and impossible to put down.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)|
About the Author
CRAIG RUSSELL is an award-winning Scottish author whose books have been translated into twenty-five languages. His previous works include the Fabel Series of thrillers and the Lennox Series of noir mysteries. He is the winner of the 2015 McIlvanney Prize, as well as the 2008 Crime Writers' Association Dagger in the Library prize. A former police officer, he lives in Perthshire, Scotland, with his wife.
Read an Excerpt
In the late autumn of 1935, Dr. Viktor Kosárek was a tall, lean man in his twenty-ninth year. He was handsome, not the unexceptional handsomeness of most of the Bohemian race, but with a hint of ancient nobility about his long slender nose, high-angled cheekbones and hard, blue-green eyes beneath dark-arched eyebrows and raven-black hair. At an age where many men still looked boyish, Viktor Kosárek’s rather severe features made him look older than he actually was: a guised maturity and accidental authority that aided him in his work. As a psychiatrist, it was Viktor’s professional duty to unfold inner secrets, to shine a light into the most shadowed, most protected corners of his patients’ minds, and those patients would not release their closest-held secrets, deliver their darkest despairs and desires, into the hands of a mere boy.
It was night and it was raining—a chill rain that spoke of the seasons turning—when Viktor left his rented apartment for the last time. Because he had so much luggage and his provincial train was leaving from Masaryk Station on Hybernská Street rather than Prague main station, he had taken a taxi. Also because he had so much luggage—a large trunk and two heavy suitcases—and because he knew how difficult it could be to secure a porter, he had timed his arrival at the station with three-quarters of an hour to spare. It was just as well because, once paid, the dour taxi driver simply deposited the luggage on the pavement outside the station’s main entrance and drove off.
Viktor had hoped his friend Filip Starosta would have been there to see him off and to help with the luggage, but the increasingly unreliable Filip had called off at the last minute. It meant Viktor had no option but to leave his baggage where it was and go off in search of a porter, which took him a good ten minutes. He guessed that the absence of porting staff had something to do with the commotion inside the station—the urgent shouts and cries that Viktor could now hear but that were out of his sight. Eventually he secured a young station attendant of about sixteen in an oversized red kepi who, despite his slight build, swung the trunk and cases onto his porter’s trolley with ease.
They were heading into the station when a Praga Alfa in police colors pulled up into the rank that Viktor’s taxi had just vacated. Two uniformed officers leaped from the car and ran across their path and into the station.
“What’s going on?” Viktor asked the boy porter, whose shoulders shrugged somewhere in his loosely fitted uniform jacket.
“I heard a lot of shouting,” the boy said. “Just before you called me over. Didn’t see what was going on, though.”
Following the boy and his luggage into the station, Viktor could see right away that some significant drama was unfolding. Over in a far corner of the concourse, a large crowd was clustering like iron filings drawn to a magnet, leaving the main hall almost empty. Viktor noticed that the two newly arrived policemen had joined a number of other officers trying to disperse the crowd.
Someone concealed by the cluster of people was shouting: a male voice. A woman, also hidden by the throng, screamed in terror.
“She’s a demon!” yelled the man, hidden by the curtain of onlookers. “She’s a demon sent by the Devil. By Satan!” There was a pause, then, in an urgent tone of frightened warning, “He is here now—Satan is here! Satan is come among us!”
“Stay here . . . ,” Viktor ordered the porter. He walked briskly across the station hall and shouldered his way through to the front of the crowd, which had formed in a police-restrained semicircle. As he pushed through, he heard a woman whisper in dark excitement to her friend: “Do you think it’s really him? Do you think he’s Leather Apron?”
Viktor could now see the source of the cries: a man and a woman. Both looked terrified: the woman because she was being held from behind by the man, who had a large kitchen knife to her throat; the man terrified for reasons known only to himself.
“She’s a demon!” the man yelled again. “A demon sent from Hell! See how she burns!”
Viktor could see that the woman was well dressed and prosperous looking, while her captor wore a workingman’s garb of battered cap, collarless shirt, coarse serge jacket and bagged corduroy trousers. At first glance it was obvious they were not a couple and he suspected the woman had been seized at random. The wild, darting, wide-eyed gaze of the young man indicated to Viktor the existential terror of some schizophrenic episode.
A single police officer stood closer than his colleagues to the couple, his hand resting on his undrawn pistol. Keep it holstered, thought Viktor; don’t add to his sense of threat. He pushed through the front rank of onlookers and was immediately restrained by two policemen, who seized him roughly.
“Get back!” a Slovak accent commanded. “Why can’t you ghouls—”
“I’m Dr. Viktor Kosárek, of the Bohnice Asylum,” protested Viktor, wriggling to wrest his arms free from the policemen’s restraint. “I’m a clinical psychiatrist. I think I can be of help here.”
“Oh . . .” The Slovak nodded to the other officer and they both released their grip on Viktor. “Is he one of yours? An escapee?”
“Not that I know of. Definitely not one of my patients. But wherever he’s from, he’s clearly in the midst of a psychotic episode. Paranoiac delusions. Schizophrenia.”
“Pavel!” the Slovak called over to the policeman who stood with his hand still resting on his gun holster. “There’s a head-case doctor here . . .”
“Send him over,” said the officer without taking his eyes from captor and captive.
“I need you to disperse this crowd,” Viktor said quietly to the Slovak policeman as he stepped from the throng. “They’re hemming him in. The more anxious he gets, the more threatened he feels, the greater danger the young lady is in.”
The Slovak nodded, and with renewed urgency and determination, he and his fellow officers pushed and cajoled the crowd into a retreat from the drama.
Viktor went over to the policeman the Slovak had addressed as Pavel.
“You the headshrinker?” asked the officer, without taking his eyes from the knifeman.
“Dr. Viktor Kosárek. I’m an intern at the Bohnice Asylum . . . well, I was an intern at the Bohnice Asylum,” he corrected himself. “I’m actually traveling to the Hrad Orlů Asylum for the Criminally Insane to take up a new post.”
“Thanks for the curriculum vitae, Doctor—but we do have a bit of an urgent situation on our hands here.” The sarcasm dropped from his tone. “Wait a minute—Hrad Orlů? Isn’t that where they’ve got the Devil’s Six locked up? In that case, this should be right up your street. Can you help?”
“I’ll do my best,” Viktor replied, “but if he’s seriously delusional, I don’t know if I’ll get through to him.”
“If you don’t get through to him, then I’m afraid I’ll have to.” The policeman gave his leather holster a tap.
Kosárek nodded and placed himself squarely in front of the woman and her captor. He looked directly into the woman’s eyes first.
“Try not to be afraid.” He spoke to her quietly and evenly. “I know this is very difficult, but, whatever you do, don’t struggle or scream. I don’t want him more emotionally aroused than he is at the moment. I need you to be brave for me. Do you understand?”
The woman, her eyes wide with terror, gave a small nod.
“Good,” said Viktor. He noted that the sharp edge of the knife creased the skin of her neck right above the jugular. It wouldn’t take much—the smallest of movements—for her deranged captor to sever the vein. And if he did, within seconds she would be so far from the shore of life that there would be nothing anyone could do to save her.
He turned to her captor, looking over the woman’s shoulder and again directly into his eyes. He was a young man, perhaps even a couple of years younger than Viktor. His eyes were no less wide and no less afraid than those of his captive, his gaze scanning the space around them, not focusing on, not even seeming to see, the police and agitated crowd that had now moved farther back. Instead he seemed to be watching horrors unfold that were invisible to everyone else. It was something Viktor Kosárek had already seen many times in his brief career: the mad inhabiting a different dimension mentally, while remaining in this one physically.
“My name is Dr. Kosárek.” Viktor’s voice was again calm, even. “I’m here to help you. I know you’re afraid, but I’m going to do everything I can to help you. What is your name?”
“She is a demon!” cried the man.
“What is your name?” Viktor repeated.
“A fire demon. Can’t you see? They are all around us. They feed off us. She’s been sent here to feed off me. She’s been sent by the Devil—”
The young man broke off and looked as if he had suddenly heard a sound or smelled a strange odor. “He is here,” he said in a forced, urgent whisper. “The Devil is here, now, in this place. I sense him—”
“Your name,” said Kosárek quietly, kindly. “Please tell me your name.”
The man with the knife looked confused, as if he couldn’t understand why he was being distracted with such trifles. “Šimon,” he said eventually. “My name is Šimon.”
“Šimon, I need you to keep calm. Very calm.”
“Calm?” asked Šimon incredulously. “You ask me to be calm? The Devil is among us. His demons are here. She is a demon. Don’t you see them?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t. Where are they?”
Šimon cast his gaze like a searchlight over the marble floor of the railway station. “Don’t you see? Are you blind? They’re everywhere.” He suddenly looked more afraid, more agitated, again seeing something that only he was witness to. “The ground—the floor—it’s sweating them. They ooze up out of the stone. Lava from the bowels of the Earth. Then they bubble and froth upward until they take form. Like this one.” He tightened his grip on his captive, the hand with the knife twitching.
“Šimon,” said Viktor, “don’t you see you’ve got it all wrong? This woman is nothing but a woman. She’s not a demon.”
“Are you mad? Can’t you see? Don’t you see the fire horns curling out from her head? The lava of her eyes? Her white-hot iron hooves? She is an elemental demon. A fire demon. I am so terribly burned from just touching her. I have to stop her. I have to stop them all. They are here to feed off us, to burn us all, to take us into the lake of fire where there will be no end to our torment.” He thought about his own words, then spoke with a sudden but quiet and considered resolve. “I’ve got it: I have to cut her head off . . . That’s it, I have to cut her head clean off. It’s the only way to kill a demon. The only way.”
The woman, who had been doing her best to follow Viktor’s command and remain quiet, let out a desperate cry. Kosárek held up a calming hand to both captive and captor. He realized he was dealing with a delusional schizophrenic paranoia of massive dimension; that there might be no way of reaching Šimon’s tortured mind before he killed his captive.
He cast a meaningful look in the direction of the police officer, who gave a small nod and quietly unbuttoned the flap on his leather holster.
“I assure you, Šimon, this woman is no demon,” said Viktor. “You are unwell. You’re unwell in a way that makes your senses deceive you. Close your eyes and take a breath.”
“It’s the Devil who deceives. The Great Deceiver has blinded everyone but me. I am God’s instrument. If I close my eyes, the Devil will sneak up on me and drag me to Hell.” He lowered his voice; sounded pained, afraid. “I have seen the Great Deceiver. I have seen the Devil and looked into his face.” He gave a cry of terrible despair. “He burned me with his eyes!”
“Šimon, please listen to me. Please try to understand. There is no Devil. All there is, all you’re experiencing, is your mind. Your mind—everybody’s mind—is like a great sea, a deep ocean. We all live our lives, every day, every one of us, sailing on the surface of that ocean. Do you understand me, Šimon?”
The madman nodded, but his eyes remained manic, terrified.
“But beneath each of us,” continued Viktor, “are the great dark fathoms of our personal oceans. Sometimes frightening monsters live in those depths—great fears and terrible desires that can seem to take real form. I know these things because I work with them as a doctor all the time. What is happening to you, Šimon, is that there is a great storm in your ocean; everything has been stirred up and swirled around. All of those dark monsters from the deeps of your mind have been awoken and have burst through the surface. I want you to think about it. I want you to understand that everything that is frightening you at this moment, everything you think you see, is being created by your mind.”
“I am being deceived?” Šimon’s voice became that of a frightened, lonely child.
“You’re being deceived,” repeated Viktor. “The woman you hold is an ordinary woman. The demon you think you hold is a demon of your imagination. The Devil you fear is nothing but a hidden aspect of your own mind. Please, Šimon, close your eyes—”
“I am being deceived—”
“Close them, Šimon. Close them and imagine the storm passing, the waters calming.”
“Deceived . . .” He closed his eyes.
“Let the lady go, Šimon. Please.”
“Deceived . . .” He let his arm fall from around the woman’s shoulders. The hand that held the knife eased away from her throat.
“Move!” The policeman hissed the urgent command at the woman. “To me, now!”
“Deceived . . .”
The woman ran, sobbing, across to the policeman, who ushered her beyond the police line; a woman from the crowd folded comforting arms around her.
“Please, Šimon,” Viktor Kosárek said to the young man, who now stood alone with his eyes still closed, “put the knife down.”
Šimon opened his eyes. He looked at the knife in his hand and again repeated: “Deceived.” He looked up, his eyes plaintive; his hands, the knife still in one, held out beseechingly.
“It’s all right,” said Viktor, taking a step toward him. “I’ll help you now.”
“I was deceived,” said Šimon, suddenly angry. “The Great Deceiver, the Guiser, the Dark One—he deceived me.” He looked directly at Viktor and gave a small laugh. “I didn’t recognize you. Why didn’t I recognize you? But I know who you are now.” Šimon’s eyes became suddenly hard and full of hate. “Now I know! Now I know who you are!”
It happened too fast for Viktor to react. Šimon launched himself at the young psychiatrist, the knife raised high and ready to strike.
Viktor froze and two sounds filled the space around him, reverberating in the cavern of the station concourse: the deafening sound of the policeman’s gunshot, and Šimon’s screaming, as he lunged at the young doctor, of a single word.
Reading Group Guide
1. How did The Devil Aspect use the themes of good vs. evil?
2. Why do you think the author chose to set the book in Czechoslovakia before WWII?
3. What role did the setting (for example, the medieval castle and the forests) play in the novel?
4. While reading, who were your top suspects for “Leather Apron”?
5. What clues were missed along the way to the true identity of “the Leather Apron,” including by Viktor himself?
6. How did themes of “madness” play into the novel?
7. What do you think most drew Judita and Viktor together?
8. What similarities, if any, could you draw between each of the Devil’s Six?
9. What effect do you think the multiple narrations, primarily Viktor’s and Police investigator Smolák’s, had in the telling of the story?
10. In the end, do you believe Viktor’s theory about “The Devil Aspect” was proven to be true or false?