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 killers–known to the staff as The Woodcutter, The Clown, The Glass Collector, The Vegetarian, The Sciomancer, and The Demon – and 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 earlier–London’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.
Viktor is the new resident psychiatrist in an asylum housing the foulest of criminals, who are aptly nick-named the Devil’s Six. Viktor not only wants to treat these criminals, he also wants to experiment on them, because he’s desperate to isolate the Devil Aspect: he believes that the Devil is not a supernatural being, but rather a natural force that lives in people. But because this force is hiding, people often don’t realise it’s there and so they don’t remember their violent actions. Viktor believes that if he can find where the Devil hides, he can reach him and bind him, thus healing the patient. Well that’s ambitious to say the least! I’ve always been fascinated by the human mind, especially the criminal mind, so I was very curious to find out where the story would take me.
This psychological aspect is a very important one. There’s quite a lot of mention of Jung and his theories, and while it never felt like an information dump, I do feel you need to be interested in psychology and psychiatry, if only a little bit, to be able to enjoy this novel.
Besides the psychological angle, another important aspect of the story is Eastern European folklore, myths and legends. Again, these elements are neatly woven into the story, but again, I do feel you need to be at least a little bit interested in those to really appreciate this novel.
A third, and perhaps the most prevalent, aspect of this novel is horror. There’s the mystery of Leather Apron who brutally kills his victims and we’re also taken back to certain events and actions that earned the asylum’s residents the nickname of the Devil’s Six. Certain scenes are chilling to the bone. But then, what did you expect from a story about the Devil’s Six?! Sometimes there’s blood and gore, but sometimes there’s just this unspeakable evil and you guys, at times I was truly terrified! A large part of that was also the gothic setting, which was absolutely brilliant. An old, remote castle overlooking a small village, turned into an asylum for the criminally insane? It doesn’t get more atmospheric than that! The era it’s set in is equally well-chosen: at the dawn of WWII, what better times for a story about the evil that dwells in mankind?
Overall I found this a very intriguing, atmospheric novel that made me ponder human nature and the criminal mind. However, it didn’t always grip me as much as I’d thought it would and, despite my interests in its various topics and aspects, The Devil Aspect made for rather dense and heavy reading, it felt like I was making slow progress. However, I do feel it was well worth my time and efforts!
In terms of the Leather Apron mystery, The Devil Aspect only gives up its secrets in its last fifty pages. Was I taken by surprise? Not entirely, I did suspect who Leather Apron was, but nevertheless, I felt it was cleverly plotted and I really enjoyed the ride.
Many thanks to Little, Brown Book Group and NetGalley for the free eARC. All opinions are my own and I was not paid to give them.