The Ease of Offending

The Devil Will Come by Glenn CooperI was recently given a copy of Glenn Cooper’s The Devil Will Come by a friend who works at a literary festival–it was a Speculative Fiction book, which is a genre he typically doesn’t read and one I often enjoy. Cooper’s book is centred around the Vatican and the Catholic faith, but unlike Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the Catholics are not the villians of the piece. Indeed the heroine we follow is a young nun, who is tasked with uncovering the mysteries of a secret sect who have vowed to destroy the Catholic faith in the name of money and power, guided by the true power of astrology. Apparently, we’ve had the symbol for Pices wrong for a very long time.

Initially, the reading experience was very promising. Cooper’s text was well put together and the plot was compelling. There was a great drive and flow to the action that kept things chugging along, with enough twists and turns that were neither overtly foreshadowed nor spelt out in great detail before they became relevant to the plot, which has always been my greatest gripe when reading a mystery story. The characters too were well formed, although I still personally wonder if the device of creating a character (or characters) and writing from their perspective for the specific purpose of having them die in an attempt to heighten the emotional impact of their (usually messy) deaths is one that is worth doing. Personally I feel a bit cheated when I recognise the device. Still, the major characters were very well crafted, and I particularly enjoyed the interactions of the protagonist and her family, as well as the look back to the times of the Roman Emperor Nero and Elizabethan England.


However (and you knew there was going to be a ‘however’), I was jarred out of the book and the narrative on several occasions, and I personally felt like homosexuality was used in the book as a shorthand for the concepts of ‘evil’, ‘debauched’ or ‘lesser individuals unworthy of due process’, which I personally was unsettled by. It also made me ask if this was a deliberate plot device (given Occam’s Razor and that one of the situations involved the historical figure of Christopher Marlowe), and I was being overly sensitive, or whether this is a prime example of latent homophobia. Now as a proponent of diversity, I have to admit it is crucial to accept that there is nothing that prevents anyone in the GLBT community from being a villian, or bad, debauched or just plain evil. I am also hesitant to demand that any story where a gay character is penned as evil must be balanced by one that is not. I suppose what I object to in this particular work, is the idea that homosexuality is given a token treatment in a ‘that’s so gay’ fashion. As a successful author, it is likely that this book will be widely read by several million people, and those people will have the notion of gay=bad reinforced in their heads. Whether or not Glenn Cooper intended this to be the case is largely irrelevent–intent would simply make a bad situation worse, as the damage would still be done on a societal level.

Of course, it’s just one book, just one tiny part of a what a person is exposed to, the detractors will cry–but it’s one more book, one more tiny piece of mainstream media and personal interactions where homophobia is displayed, normalised and accepted as ‘good and proper behaviour’ and glossed over because it’s just something on the sidelines. It’s dismissive and hurtful, and frankly, it’s jarring as a reader once you notice it happening, tacked on as it is to minor characters who are not necessarily as fully realised and three dimensional as the protagonists.

Quite aside from that, there’s also a not very subtle dig at author Stephenie Meyer, who is of course both loved and reviled for the Twilight phenomenon, who gets a character named after her who is eventually revealed to be an evil, souless villian who is working to destroy the Catholic Church and cause as much conflict as possible in order to reap vast profits and power. Interestingly, she’s also depicted as being a great fan of Christopher Marlowe who was using his writing to ridicule the Church and make people turn against it. I’m not saying this is a thinly veiled judgement (and if it is one, it’s certainly not mine), but it’s a interesting comment. I found the insult to be unprofessional, and given the omnipresence of the Twilight franchise, I also find it difficult to see how it could have been made unwittingly. By all means ridicule Twilight or Meyer as its author for the way it is written, for the characterisation or for the way it teaches young girls that what they really should want in their life is a stalker to base their self worth on, but you don’t create a namesake character and brand her as evil just because you can. Aside from appearing petty, the metatextuality dumps your readers out of your story every time that character appears on the page.

Over on Goodreads I ended up giving the book 2.5 stars out of 5, which is disappointing, because if it wasn’t for those issues with the text, it would likely have received a 4 at the very least. So what do you think? Am I being too touchy? Or am I justified in being worried given the documented links between societal homophobia and the incidence of mental health issues (and costs) in the GLBT population?




  1. I don’t think you’re being too touchy. All reading is subjective. You’re entitled to feel the way you do especially since you can cite instances where the author’s devices and tone dumped you out of the story, which makes you right of course. Now, that doesn’t mean you’re right in general because maybe it didn’t dump ME out of the story. It just means books are subjective and you’re entitled to how the book made you feel whether no one else agrees or not.

    • Charlie Cochrane on 12 April, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    Just adding my two penn’orth. I’ve not read this particular book, so this is generalised.

    There are two excuses for what I’ll call discriminatory writing. Either it reflects the era the author wrote in (Dorothy L Sayers’ stuff has some really offensive elements but that’s a mirror to the prevalent attitudes of her day) or the characters’ attitudes are holding up that same mirror. (I prefer, even though it’s painful, to see characters speaking and thinking as they probably would have done in the past rather than spouting ideas/attitudes which are too modern.)

    Final point – I’ve got to the age that, if I don’t enjoy a book, I just give up on it. Too many good things to read, instead.

  2. Thanks Lex and Charlie. I completely agree about books being subjective, and I’m quite sure some people will be able to read and enjoy the work for the story without being bumped from it. Charlie, I hear you on the reasons for discriminatory writing. Given the at this particular novel is present day and the historical section is fictionalised (there is no concrete proof Marlowe was homosexual, it’s a theory, as with Shakespeare), my reading is inclined towards the latter.

    I do put books down (some sooner than others), the annoying thing with this one is that it was so great up unto those end sections, and with only a hundred pages to go I thought it was worth finishing to see the plot resolution, even if I didn’t care for the author’s tone in a number of places.

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