Diabolical, by Hank Schwaeble, is a Jake Hatcher novel, the sequel to Damnable. It takes place a short time after the events of the first novel, but in a new location. Many of the same characters are back, with a few new ones, and the recipe for the story makes use of the same ingredients in just about the same proportions. How you felt about the first book is, within a reasonable margin, how you are going to feel about its sequel.
Jake Hatcher has moved out to California to lie low for a while, working as a bouncer at a bar. Despite his precautions, he is found by people who want his services. He winds up entangled in a plot where nothing is as it seems, a demonic apocalypse is at stake, and no one can be trusted. Plot twists abound, as do action and fighting sequences, a little sex is sprinkled in, and the resolution is anyone’s guess right up until the end.
There are some areas in which Diabolical is an improvement on Damnable. Though the first novel had some inspired chapter hooks near the beginning, Diabolical saves its best twists for later on. For this reason, as well as a smoother flow that eliminates a little dead weight found in the first book, the second novel reaches its climax in better fashion than the first. In particular, Schwaeble does a good job of keeping the reader guessing about certain characters. Whereas in the first one there was a general blanket of uncertainty covering nearly everything, in the second the author takes you through highs and lows, at times fabricating a specious certainty that is ripped away, only to be brought back again. If the novel were a marionette, I would say the puppet master has grown more adept at pulling the strings.
Another point where the sequel improved on the founding work was in the character of Jake Hatcher. There is more time spent on his sins, on the mistakes that haunt him. No man can torture for the government and not be touched by it unless he is a sociopath, which Hatcher is not. Furthermore, he is constantly fighting, wounding, crippling, damaging, gouging, breaking, lacerating, smashing, gashing, and pulverizing a wide assortment of individuals. A person cannot live a life like this without damaging himself, as many former hockey players, after careers spent as “enforcers” are now discovering. In Damnable, Hatcher was bothered by his past only a little more than Super Mario is by jumping on and crushing turtles. In Diabolical, we finally see a human side to Hatcher, a hint of a conscience with a pointy edge. This internal struggle is not the main theme of the novel, and it is not developed and explored like Crane did for Henry Fleming, but it is something.
Though I would say Diabolical was a step up, it still had its foibles — ones nearly identical to those in Damnable. Jake Hatcher still possesses an improbable ability to read clues correctly, with the exception of the villain’s master plan which, again, fools him right up until the end. He can interpret from, say, a person’s body language exactly what they are up to and take decisive action based on it, despite the fact that such observations could conceivably have more than one explanation. In Diabolical, Hatcher goes so far as to point a gun at a man and pull the trigger, supremely confident that it is unloaded. While the hints he observes during that particular confrontation might plausibly lead him to believe his opponents are bluffing, it does not follow that they simply must be bluffing, that they can be doing nothing other than bluffing, nor that, in bluffing, they must have left the gun unloaded.
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In addition to Hatcher’s psychic powers, the villain’s plot is, again, overly complex. Like before, all the villain needs is to trick Hatcher into performing one solitary act, and the reader is left feeling that there are simpler ways to do it. Indeed, given Hatcher’s past history with the villain, his distrust could have been used from the outset to manipulate the man and all might have been accomplished in chapter one. Instead, a fabulously intricate scheme is put together.
It is not as if getting to the heart of that scheme were boring. It was a fun ride and I am glad it did not wrap up in chapter one, but when one finally gets to the big reveal and discovers how unnecessary most of it was, one is left with a mild disappointment. It was sort of like preparing a great feast for a party and only having one friend show up: even if one does enjoy the cooking, it is deflating.
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The first book in the series might have been a standalone novel. This one deliberately leaves open the possibility, no, the necessity, of a sequel. Having enjoyed the ride so far, complaints notwithstanding, and given the indications of a mild upward trajectory in the author’s mastery of his subject, I may just pick the third book up and check it out when it is finally released.