Book Review: Friend of the Devil by Stephen Lloyd
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Length: 240 pages
Author Information: Website
Wow, what did I just read? I don’t even know where to begin with explaining exactly how this book made me feel. I can probably say with certainty I didn’t love it, but at the same time, it wasn’t bad. For better or worse, Friend of the Devil kept me entertained and it was nothing like I expected.
The story takes place in the 1980s, and follows insurance investigator Sam Gregory. Our protagonist is a war veteran, is a no-nonsense hard-boiled detective kind of character. For his latest job, his company has dispatched him to a posh private school situated on its own little island off the coast of Massachusetts. Danforth Putnum, a boarding school for children of the elite, has reported a theft of a priceless 11th century manuscript from its library safe, which was supposed to be impregnable. The case is too low priority for the police, so it’s up to Sam to gather up all the necessary information.
While poking around the campus, however, he discovers something far stranger going on at the school beyond missing manuscripts and mean bullies. After interviewing some of the staff and students, he learns of some missing kids and hears rumors of a possible demonic entity stalking the island. At the same time, Sam’s presence has caught the attention of a brilliant and tenacious school reporter named Harriet, who is determined to find out what he’s up to.
First, the positives. I enjoyed the setting. I make it no secret that books set in elite prep schools are like my catnip. I’d hate to have to ever attend a school like Danforth Putnam, but I sure loved reading about dynamics between its trouble students and following all the drama unfolding within its walls. The fact that the campus was on its own creepy little island simply added to the appeal.
I also liked the main character. Despite being employed by an insurance company, the role played by Sam Gregory clearly draws inspiration from the protagonists in tough and gritty hard-boiled pulp crime mysteries made popular in the 1930s. Sam has the attitude and the dry wit, but he’s even more rough around the edges, jaded by his time in the military and struggling with substance abuse. He’s seen so much in his line of work that pretty much nothing surprises him anymore, and anyone who thinks they can mess with Sam has got it coming.
And now for the not-so-great. Ultimately, it was the plot that failed to pull its weight for this book, and I hate to say it, but much of it was in the way it was written. You had a strong setting, a powerful main character, a decent story, but it was like the threads holding it all together were untidy and left huge holes. The flow of the novel felt disjointed and sometimes left me with the feeling that something important was missing or didn’t segue right.
Then there was the bloody gore and gruesomeness. Again, it’s not so much the actual content I object to, but more the way it was written. I felt like some of the more graphic scenes were out of place and did not match the overall tone of the book, and descriptions of the brutal killings felt overly self-indulgent and not very necessary.
It made me wonder if the author’s experience as a TV writer and producer might have had something to do with the overall choppiness of the story structure. Writing a novel is quite different than writing a screenplay for a show, and in Friend of the Devil, I sensed that heavier emphasis was placed on individual scenes rather than the transitions between them and the overall flow. So, for example, bursty action-filled sequences were given a lot more attention while anything that was more related to character and plot development was glossed over.
I think with a little bit of polishing and smoothing out of some of its rough edges, this book could have been a great. Still, while Stephen Lloyd’s horror debut did not quite meet all my high expectations, it still delivered the creepiness and suspense where it mattered. Ultimately, Friend of the Devil gets a solid three stars because it kept me turning the pages, despite its flaws.