Chicago, 1940s. Nine years, 11 months, and 27 days ago, Helen Brandt lost everything: her job, her family, and—in a desperate bid to resurrect her dead brother—her soul. One deal with the devil later and her little brother Teddy was alive again. But the secretive magical order they were both a part of, the Brotherhood, expelled her for breaking their highest laws, and Teddy cut off all contact. For the last decade, Helen has worked as a magical private detective in the Windy City with Edith, the love of her life at her side. Helen would do anything to get her soul back so she could spend the rest of her days kissing Edith. When the enigmatic femme fatale Marlowe offers her just that, Helen leaps at the chance. Leaps too quickly, perhaps. Leaps without thinking too deeply or asking too many questions.
Now she has three days to figure out who is leaving human sacrifices all over town. Dubbed the White City Vampire, this sadistic serial killer is butchering people and decorating the kill sites in their blood. What does he want? What do the victims have in common? Why is the Brotherhood sniffing around? And why is Helen at the top of the killer’s list? The further Helen digs, the darker things get. What began as a dream of saving her soul becomes a nightmare of trying to save the people she loves before it’s too late.
Despite the myriad issues with the subgenre, I love a good hardboiled detective story. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, Walter Mosely, Bogie making cutting remarks between cigarettes, inject it straight into my veins. And if you really want to be pedantic, Even Though I Knew the End takes most of its DNA from the hardboiled detective novel rather than noir. Most people use the terms synonymously, but there are real distinctions. Noir is often darker and more morally ambiguous, with the protagonist falling hard due to fatal character flaws, while the hardboiled detective story has an antihero getting pulled into a chaotic plot and eventually restoring order even as the bodies stack up.
Helen, as an ostracized warlock, a soulless augur, and a lesbian living with her lady lover, is about as antihero as it gets. Marlowe’s offer tosses her into the middle of a battle she didn’t even know was raging and only her wits and sense of justice will get her out of it. While she is perfectly willing to cross the line for what she believes, she also has a strong moral compass; she draws a line not between good and evil but right and wrong. By putting Helen in the role previously occupied by Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and adding dustings of romance and fantasy, C.L. Polk twists the hardboiled detective subgenre into something new and fresh and enticingly queer.
As per usual with Polk, there’s a ton of excellent worldbuilding. The novella may be short—under 150 pages—but it isn’t shallow or hollow. Readers get a good sense of the world these people live in, the magical systems, and enough historical background to give context to the present. Some of the characters are sketched too thin, but Helen is a fascinating antihero. She, like her predecessors, knows when she’s in over her head and when she’s in too deep to back out. Polk leans heavily on angels and demons, but this isn’t a Christianity or religious book. If anything, it’s about rejecting the rules who were created by those in power to keep everyone else down and finding your own path to spirituality, however you define it. The mystery is a little too easy to figure out and the ending is a little too pat, but overall it’s a thrilling, charming novella.
Lastly, if you’re an audiobook person, I highly recommend it. Narrator January LaVoy was a delight. She hit every voice, every accent, every kernel of subtext perfectly. Usually I listen to audiobooks while doing other activities, but she made it hard to concentrate on anything else.
Even Though I Knew the End is available from Tordotcom Publishing.
Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).