Mountain Goats' singer-songwriter Darnielle offers a metafictional tale about a true-crime writer named Gage Chandler, who is descended from kings. After Chandler moves into the house where a pair of notorious murders occurred in the 1980s, his research leads him into a puzzle he never expected—one that gets at the very core of what he does and who he is.
Darnielle's prose (and Darnielle-as-Chandler's prose; the two are not always the same) teems with teeth-chattering tension, even though the basic facts of both cases are laid out pretty plainly in the first few pages of the books. While the arresting drama of discovery is certainly satisfying, it's not the main feast of this book. And that itself is a clever hook: come for the gripping true crime tale, stay for the heartbreaking deconstruction of our voyeuristic fascination with real-life murder ... The prose is consistently luscious, even as it moves like a chameleon from Gage's personal notes, to his published prose, to his self-reflections, and then slips into the perspectives of the people affected by these murders ... Not every part of Devil House works perfectly. The section on the medieval Welsh legend of Gorbonian, while well-written, is difficult to read both in font and syntax, and doesn't illuminate the narrative quite as cleverly as it seems to wish it could ... The same can be said about the narrative switch at the end—it works, and it's effective, and I don't know how else the story could have been wrapped up, but it still seemed like a strange structural decision, as if Darnielle just needed another reason to stretch the voice of his prose. Speaking of endings, the ending of Devil House is haunting me. I mean this mostly as a positive: I was unable to put the book down even as relatives arrived at the house for Christmas, and it spooked me out of conversation even after I was done.
In achingly tragic retellings, there is more to both crimes than initially appears to be the case in this labyrinthine quest for the truth. This should draw true-crime devotees as well as crime and general-fiction readers.
... this smart, twisty novel about true-crime books and the 1980s “Satanic panic” is a fine fit for him and his best so far ... the novel becomes a kind of critique of the form, as Darnielle (and Gage) imagines the crime victims (and ideas of victimhood) in more nuanced ways. This takes some odd turns: Substantial passages are written in ersatz Middle English, part of a subplot involving Arthurian legends. But he’s excellent at getting into the uncomfortable details of abusive homes and how fear sparks an urge to escape both physically and creatively. And the closing pages cleverly resolve the Milpitas mystery while avoiding sordid crime reportage’s demand for scapegoats and simple motives. An impressively meta work that delivers the pleasures of true-crime while skewering it.