When Helen Brandt agrees to perform an augury spell on a murder scene, she expects that to be the end of it: cast her spell, photograph the horrifying blood magic left behind by the so-called White City Vampire, and head home to her girlfriend, Edith. Instead, like any good noir detective, she’s pulled in by the job. Her sometime-employer Marlowe offers her a bargain she can’t turn down: a thousand dollars plus the life she’s always wanted—that is, world enough and time with Edith—in exchange for tracking down the serial killer who’s been committing gruesome murders all over Chicago.
Oh, and I forgot to say: Helen only has three days to live.
If you are now or have ever been a fan of the fifteen (yes) seasons–long CW television program Supernatural (2005-2020), then it’s likely that you have inadvertently given yourself the same stupid superpower I now possess: a nose for when a book was written by a person with strong opinions about Dean Winchester and his angel boyfriend Castiel. C. L. Polk hasn’t buried their roots too deeply in Even Though I Knew the End, which features ritual circles, spells in the Enochian tongue, and demon bargains (inter alia). It might be set in 1940s Chicago rather than present-day Vancouver middle America, but it’s the smart, queer, feminist, heartfelt angels-and-demons story Supernatural fans craved all along.
I hope my reference to the stupidest show on earth will not be taken as any kind of jab at Even Though I Knew the End. C. L. Polk’s writing has gotten smarter, tighter, and more intentional with every book they’ve written, and this latest novella sees them at such a peak of performance that I instantly became covetous of whatever their next book is going to be. Helen is in some respects a classic noir protagonist—lured into a job she knows better than to take, arraying herself against injustice in the establishment—and yet Polk avoids the tired misogyny of the genre.
Likewise, Helen’s relationship with the angelic Edith doesn’t founder on the rocks of her job and its dangers: on the contrary, Edith’s talent at developing photography and her compassion for the White City Vampire’s victims encourage Helen to go deeper into the case. With Helen as the jaded noir detective, the character of Edith could easily have been typecast into one of the few noir molds for love interests. Polk charts a middle course between the Scylla of too-good-for-this-world martyr to Helen’s work and the Charybdis of femme fatale with dubious loyalties. Where Helen is scrappy and sharp-tongued, Edith is quietly steadfast, often glimpsed at the ledge of a windowsill feeding the sparrows. But soft is not the same as weak, and Edith’s gentleness overlays a core of steely strength.
Magic is ambient in Helen’s life partly because that’s her training. Until ten years minus three days ago, she was a promising initiate in a respected magical order, the Brotherhood of the Compass. Now that she’s been cast out of the order, she’s considered a “warlock” and is at risk of unspecified but probably very nasty discipline if she treads too close to the Brotherhood’s work. Beyond that, there’s magic in the world around her: there are people with low-level telepathy—Edith often picks up on the thoughts of people around her, “as if someone turned a radio dial to a new station”; others with a particular knack for being possessed by supernatural beings without losing themselves. The novella’s length doesn’t offer a ton of space to explore the broader implications of how, for instance, the presence of magic in the world has affected the course of World War II, but you do get the sense that there’s more to explore, should the author ever have the inclination to steer us to other corners of this world.
The vibes in this book are impeccable. Polk includes enough period detail to make her world feel real, historical, and populated with actual humans. An early description of Edith has her in a “soft green skirt suit with the corner of a lace veil peeking out of a pocket,” an outfit I can picture perfectly and which also hints at Edith’s devout Catholic faith (this will become relevant later because, you know, demons). Worldbuilding details slide into the story as smooth as butter, linked to plot points and emotional beats. We learn that Helen’s a disreputable sort of magic user almost incidentally, when she runs into her long-lost brother Ted, who still belongs to the Brotherhood of the Compass that so disdains Helen’s work. A spoonful of sibling feelings really does help the exposition go down—in the most delightful (read: painful) way!
The most distressing piece of worldbuilding takes place about two-thirds of the way through the novella (chapter 3 of act IV, in case anyone needs to brace themselves), when Helen’s attempt to solve the murders takes her to the state asylum. We see several women whose minds have been damaged through supernatural means, and Helen catches a glimpse of a woman she knows from the gay bar she frequents with Edith. “Who put her here, claiming to love her?” she muses, guessing that her friend has been subject to shock therapy intended to “cure” her of queerness. The moment feels like its own electric shock. Polk is carefully minimalist and respectful in their depiction of the asylum, but they do not shy away from reminding readers that, even as Helen and Edith face down magical dangers that have only ever existed in fiction, they are also subject to the all-too-real risks of state oppression and medical violence.
In this way, the novella puts homophobia firmly in its place. As the plot thickens in the case, Helen learns that Edith plays host to an angel called Haraniel, who is now taking an interest in the White City Vampire. Haraniel is one of a host of angels expelled from heaven for getting too cozy with humans, now trying to earn their way back home by living out the span of a human life and—they hope—returning to heaven when their human host finally dies. The two of them, Helen and Haraniel-in-Edith’s-body, team up to further their investigations, despite Helen’s considerable discomfort with the knowledge that Haraniel has been a background observer to their entire relationship. And yes, this includes the boning. But Haraniel has no time for the human cruelty Helen witnesses in the asylum: “The revulsion for homosexual love is a human opinion,” they remark scornfully.
Murder mysteries are tricky to pull off, requiring the author to perform a balancing act between releasing the right information at the right spot (so the twists, turns, and eventual resolution don’t feel like a cheat) and avoiding the risk of overplaying their hand (lest the explanation feel telegraphed). Even Though I Knew the End is flawlessly paced, doling out reveals that startle and dazzle the reader into missing the clues tucked into those moments. Polk is prone to a style of plot twist I particularly enjoy, where the reader or the protagonist or both suddenly understand that the crucial piece of information has been known all along, just not by them. Once you know it, you realize it’s been thrumming along as subtext this entire time, if you had only known what you were looking for. Of course Helen bargained away her soul to save the life of her brother; of course Edith offered herself in service of the higher powers she believes in so ardently.
In this way, the novella offers a straightforwardly terrific yarn that sucked me in from chapter one and didn’t let me go. Like all of Polk’s work to date, however, Even Though we Knew the End also explores questions of justice, queerness, and the arduous work of making moral choices within immoral structures. Polk makes beautiful use of the novella length, maintaining a tight focus on Helen’s two most central relationships (Edith and Ted) without sacrificing the sense that a vast, rich world exists around them. This is a bravura performance from an author who just keeps getting better.
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