BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Likable nebbish Chesney Arnstruther learns what it’s like being a superhero in the real world.
PROS: Humorous, real-world take on superheroes; doesn’t take itself too seriously; many smile-inducing scenes and dialog, but…
CONS: …for something billed as a comedy, there weren’t really any laugh-out loud moments.
BOTTOM LINE: A witty superhero story that’s just plain fun.
Anyone who has read Matthew Hughes’ Henghis Hapthorn stories knows that he infuses his stories with a healthy dose of wry humor. Such is the case with his novel The Damned Busters, the first book in his superhero series To Hell and Back, which features the accidental nebbish-turned-crimefighter, Chesney Arnstruther. As is par for the course for the beginning of many a superhero series, The Damned Busters is an origin story. And it’s a good one.
Chesney is a number-crunching actuary at an insurance company. The story opens with him accidentally summoning a demon whose mere presence requires that he return to hell with a signature for one soul. Chesney, being the logical man he is, refuses — a decision that cause no end of turmoil down in the fiery netherworld in terms of labor disputes and eventually work shutdowns. This may sound like a good thing, but it soon becomes apparent that it isn’t, and so a resolution must be reached — one in which Chesney bargains for living out his dream of being a superhero. But instead of simply being gifted with superpowers and left to his own devices, Chesney instead gets the daily, two-hour services of an all-powerful demon who assists him in playing the role of superhero by granting his every wish (with caveats).
What Chesney learns all too soon is that life is not like the comic books he so dearly loves. Crimes are not so easily foiled, thugs are not necessarily so easily dispensed, and keeping ones identity a secret is simply not as easy as it looks. Therein lies the core of Hughes’ comedy of super-errors; one attempt after another by Chesney to stop crime and just be a superhero ends with unexpected and often humorous results.
Hughes’ witty writing lends itself well to the stream of mishaps, and even provides an occasional social commentary rant along the way. While the delivery doesn’t quite elicit laugh-out-loud moments, it does consistently provoke smiles throughout. Better still are the scenes in which socially awkward Arthur must face…[insert ominous music here]…girls. There are three main female characters in the book: Poppy Paxton, the beautiful daughter of the owner of Chesney’s insurance company, Melda McCann, a damsel of multiple distresses, and Letitia Arnstruther, Chesney’s clingy, guilt-flinging mother. Throw in a kidnapping scheme; a curmudgeonly, magical sidekick/frenemy demon named Xaphan that looks like a weasel and acts like a 1930s gangster; and a looming enemy who seeks to control the world…and you have the makings of an enjoyable superhero story indeed. I’m looking forward to more of the same lighthearted fun with the (already available) second book in the series, Costume Not Included.