Matthew Hughes – Hell to Pay

matthewhughes-helltopayMeet Chesney Arnstruther. Once a mild-mannered insurance actuary, now a full-time crime-fighting superhero, it’s all he can do to kick bad-guy ass while at the same time holding down a steady relationship with the gorgeous Melda. Something is going on.

Meet Xaphan, wise-cracking demon and the source of (almost) all of Chesney’s powers. He’s been asked by his infernal master to give Chesney whatever he needs… but surely stopping bad guys is not in Hell’s plan? Something is definitely going on.

Meet Arthur Wrigley, a modest yet charming older gentleman whose nasty little hobby is fleecing innocent widows. Meet Simon Magus, ancient mystic and magician from Biblical times now very much enamoured of Vegas, baby. And pray you never meet the Chikkichikk, a proud and ancient race of, well, warrior dinosaurs, from the universe that God made then rejected before He started monkeying around with this one.

Whatever the hell is going on, this is definitely the third book in the wondrous To Hell & Back series.

Hell to Pay is the third and as far as I’m aware the final book in the To Hell & Back series mentioned in the above synopsis taken from the Angry Robot site. It returns us to the world of Chesney Arnstruther and company, which I discovered last year with the publication of Costume Not Included, the second book in the series. I was roped into that by the terrific cover, which was a fabulous as this one, but enjoyed it beyond my expectations. Hell to Pay was less surprising, mostly due to my familiarity with the world and Hughes’ writing this time around, but still a hugely fun read and with more complexity than the cover would make you suspect.

As in the previous books our protagonist is Chesney Arnstruther, a.k.a. the Actionary, a crime-fighting super hero. He’s quit work and turned to full-time crime-fighting since the last book, having taken up residence in the Hardacre manor with his girlfriend Melda. One of the things that impressed me a lot in the last book was Hughes’ treatment of Chesney’s character and his depiction of his autism. This time around, Chesney has been ‘cured’ from his autism due to his contact with Joshua Josephson a.k.a. the other Yeshua, and is learning to deal with life as a ‘normal’ person. While on the one hand Chesney’s troubles with adjusting are convincing and certainly funny, I did have some trouble swallowing this development, as the terms cured and normal in the context of high-functioning autism makes me somewhat uncomfortable. As I said in my review for Costume Not Included, I have several high-functioning autistic people in my life and I don’t know whether some of them would consider it a boon to be cured of it. Fortunately, Hughes does address this in the narrative, as Chesney at several points in the narrative bemoans the fact that he’s lost his moments of clarity – his pools of light – in which everything just slotted together or ponders that previously he was clueless to some of the communicational clues people send out and that made life a lot easier, because he didn’t have to worry about it.

In this concluding volume of the trilogy, II was far more fascinated with the way Hughes developed Xaphan. He is the demon responsible for all of Chesney’s superpowers and his sidekick for most of the story. Several times during the novel Hughes emphasizes that both angels and demons, unlike humans, do not have free will, they can only function by the willpower of respectively God and the Devil and in the case of demons through the will of the mortal they are bound to serve. This is illustrated by the fact that demons don’t know anything unless it’s needful for them to know it or the Devil wants them to know. However, in Hell to Pay Xaphan realises that something is off when he suddenly seems capable of independent thought. It seems as if he is developing free will, maybe even a soul. He finds this just as disconcerting as Chesney finds having to learn to deal with (other people’s) emotions and it makes for a great look at what makes an individual function as an independent entity and how complex it is to navigate the morass of morality, consequences, and responsibility. Taken together, the books are very much a meditation on individuality, free will, human nature, and good and evil.

Plot-wise, I had some mixed feelings about Hell to Pay. While I liked the way the plot surrounding the Twenty that started last book was wrapped up, it was both far less and far more complex than I expected. There was far less sleuthing and far more connecting the dots involved, which I found a shame, as I’d enjoyed that in the previous book. Fortunately however, the picture formed once the dots were connected was quite layered. The book seemingly deals far more with the fall-out from the previous book, than that one did with the first one as well, which made me wish I’d have been able to read them closer together—or reread Costume Not Included before starting Hell to Pay. This is mitigated a little bit by the final reveal and denouement of the series, which makes everything in the previous books the result of events catalysed by one unexpected decision. Still the resolution of the book went by a little fast and the ending, while cool, was rather unexpected.

Hell to Pay arguably had some disappointing elements, but on the whole it was a highly enjoyable read, with some interesting philosophical underpinnings and surprising twists. The book makes for a satisfying ending to the To Hell & Back series, which gave us a quirky, off-beat story about an unlikely super hero, with unexpected depths. I have the first book in the series on my shelf and I really need to take the time to read it as it’ll allow me to get the full picture, even if I’ll be sad to say goodbye to Chesney and friends for real once I finish it.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.