Wow, was this a wild trip! It's a short novel, perhaps short enough to be a novella, that follows on from some other books by David B. Riley that I had completely failed to realise were related. At least I own copies of “The Two Devils”, “The Devil's Due” and “The Dust Devil”, so I can catch up with them in months to come. I'd think that reading them first will help but I was able to keep up starting here.
Anyone who's met Riley at a convention will immediately associate him with a genre known as weird west. He's written a number of novels and he publishes an annual magazine called Science Fiction Trails. I've bought a few but this is the first one I've sat down to read. And, boy, have I been missing out.
Our heroine, because I believe we can call her that, is Mabel Saunders, the fallen angel of the title, an epithet we should take literally. Yes, she is an actual angel, kicked out of Heaven and resident in Hell. However, she's very much an exception to all the rules you can imagine. God (who makes an interesting cameo here) has given her a key to the Kingdom of Heaven, which she wears round her neck, and Nick Mephistopheles seems to be pretty lax on the security front, letting Mabel wander around the Earth rather a lot.
We first meet her at Vicksburg in 1963, where Mabel's working as a nurse, alongside her cannibal nympho sister Kevin (yeah, I never expected to use those four words in that order either) and a couple of others. They're not just doing their bit for the soldiers working for General Grant (a personal friend of Mabel's), they're doing their bit to thwart an invasion of little green men from Mars, who show up in their shining balls of light and shoot at people with their ray guns.
The tone throughout is flippant and naughty (it's family-friendly language all the way through and there are no sex scenes, but, wow, does plenty get suggested!), enough so that it's not too surprising to find ourselves on a quick jump forward to the San Francisco of 1884.
Mabel's unchanged, just as much of a wish-fulfilment girl as ever. She's totally out of time for this era, being confident and sassy, able to drink beer and play cards with the men in sleazy saloons and even bum cigars off them as she does so. She kicks ass, of course, and she's rather free with her favours, too. She is held by some rules, but she holds herself by some others that confuse people, namely that she counterfeits money but refuses to cheat at cards.
Her beau, though I have to wonder how they met and how they stay together, given that she keeps flitting off to Hell and returning years later at the exact same age, is Special Agent Miles O'Malley of the U.S. Treasury. The story will be in one of those prior books, I'm sure, which may or may not follow him rather than Mabel. Anyway, she tracks him down in Deadwood where he's following up on a lead that the Sioux have a Martian prisoner.
Needless to say, this is wild and wacky stuff. Riley plays it for laughs, whether with dry wit, surreal dialogue, recurring gags or wildly ludicrous situations. I'll surely never see the University of California at Berkeley the same way ever again, but I enjoyed Madam Veronica's dominatrix parlour, the constant to and fro of the devil's gun (which never misses) and even a lot of the Martian scenes, though they're more of a running gag than plot material here.
The writing is unpolished, in that it really needs a fresh proofreading job and some tidying up. The storytelling is done very much on the surface with the humour and surreality there to keep us going. That side is handled well because it's often gloriously funny, but the actual story (or stories) are undeveloped and almost an afterthought.
Perhaps there would seem to be more depth if I'd got to know the characters first in the prior volumes. I have a feeling that this is less of a sequel, though, and more of an opportunity to have fun with regular characters that we should know from those earlier books. Certainly, they look a great deal more substantial on my shelves.
This is a fun ride for 130 pages and I have to say that it makes me want to read more of Riley's work, but it's pretty flimsy stuff that deserved to be given more space to develop. This seems like Riley taking his characters and having fun with them, which is fine and highly enjoyable, but if he'd have spent more time fleshing out the story around them, this could have been a great 250-page novel. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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