The Devils You Know by Ben Sanders – 2021

Should you be judged by your intentions or by the consequences of your actions? This is the question throughout The devils you know, from the rightness of taking a job, pursuing a fixation, or invading a country. Vincent decides to leave New York after his protecting a workmate ends up with three people in hospital and his house being blown up. He decides to take a “High pay, low stress” job protecting a California supermarket magnate, but things quickly start to get complicated.

Vincent is a jandal-wearing surfer with a lot of baggage from his past deployment with the military and special ops. His military disillusionment was complete after he read the Wikileaked CIA report on the use of torture. He is averse to guns, yet he seems to end up surrounded by them. Vincent is a big reader – at one point he uses Philip Roth and Martin Amis as protection, literally. He is writing a screenplay and is prone to a bit of philosophising, “…if a life’s got too much grey area, it doesn’t matter if you run it forward or back – it looks the same ethically”. Early on he decides he’s had enough of the supermarket magnate, but then things turn very bad and the magnate’s daughter, Erin, becomes the target of some very nasty people when she is set to inherit her father’s millions.

Erin is not unused to being a target, her first book outed drug crime families. But her second book, in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has brought on another level of fury. She is dropped by a publisher and some of her public speaking gigs are cancelled. She has a difficult ex-husband who is not keen on her talking to her only son, and she is barely in contact with her father, who dislikes her politics. But when she discovers her father and some of his staff seem to have been embroiled in something extremely unlawful and dangerous, and that people are after her for 30 million dollars, she is determined to find the truth. And she asks her father’s ex-bodyguard for protection, jandals and all.

Vincent and Erin’s enquiries proceed apace; there are thrills, a mystery, and the attraction between two people with similar outlooks but totally opposing views. Vincent is a great character, tough and deadly, yet self-conscious when around Erin. And their discussions about war, with her clarity and his “boots-on-the-ground perspective” are superb, a counter to the social media-driven “abandonment of the middle ground when it came to political discourse.” There is a penultimate moment when you get to imagine the narrative taking a turn away from the reality of the situation, but then the reality comes crashing in again.

There are other complex characters in The devils you know: Locke, the U.S. Marshall, realising he’s got everything worth living for yet wondering why he is fixated on catching one scumbag. Beauden, who runs Bluesmoke, the agency Vincent is working for, and who is slowly falling apart as the story unrolls. And the psychopath Andre, happy to be what he is: “All these levels to life. Money, people, the power and authority they got. You have to know where you fit in, what your score is. And I only got one side to my life and that means one way to measure it. So what am I worth if I let you out of here having said that I won’t?”

The plot of The devils you know is satisfyingly wound up, but the joy of the book is in the characters and their ponderings, Vincent looking out a window at night: “The whole city like something biological, a brain map: every neuron glowing, some of them with bad ideas”, wondering about the contrast between civilian killing and wartime violence where you kill and move on and there are “No white sheets, no numbered markers by the drops of blood”. The descriptions of locale and action are sharp and visceral and through the book the California wildfires get closer and closer, adding to the tension.

I have really liked Sanders’ writing over the years, and The devils you know is a great addition. Read it and see if you agree!    

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