Buddy movies take two seemingly incompatible people (usually male and usually police officers), and place them in a situation in which they are forced to depend upon one another. The ensuing plot line typically demonstrates a complementary relationship built on opposite personality types; often, despite their seeming disparities, the buddies discover that they really aren’t as different as first supposed. And the whole thing usually leads to sequels for what, as Humphrey Bogart says to Frederic March as they walk into the Casablanca fog, could be the start of a long friendship.
Since we already know that Felix and Oscar are going to wind up respecting one another even as their little quirks get under their respective skins, the trick to making the formula work time and again is to come up with some variation that hasn’t quite been done before. But after you run through the white guy/black guy, Asian guy/Caucasian guy, straight guy/queer guy, neat guy/slob guy, and male guy/girl guy variants, what’s left?
In what her publisher’s publicity describes as a "near future occult thriller," Liz Williams partners a self-doubting human, Detective Inspector Chen (echoing the venerable Charlie Chan), with Seneschal Zhu Irzh, a self-assured demon who is, of all things, a vice officer in Hell. Chen is the titular "snake agent," working for the Singapore Three police department, in charge of investigating the supernatural and with a special dispensation to visit crime victims in the realms of Heaven and Hell without paying the standard price of transport—death.
And, yes, you don’t even have to get to the end of the story to know that this is just the beginning of another classic great friendship, if only because the subtitle states this is a "Zhu Irzh and Inspector Chen Novel." (Interesting that the devil gets the top billing).
As if in acknowledgement of this, Williams dispenses with the typical long and awkward period of adjustment in which the protagonists are at loggerheads and working at cross-purposes. Almost from the start, Chen and Zhu Irzh get along, and soon come to trust one another in an investigation regarding the illegal—as defined by both worldly and otherworldly authorities—procurement of souls by one of Hell’s most powerful governing bodies: the Ministry of Epidemics. Perhaps it goes without saying that Hell is ideally suited for politics. Further complicating the situation is that Chen’s wife is a demon on the run from an arranged marriage to a high ranking member of the Ministry of Epidemics. And Hell hath no fury like a devil scorned.
There are also some interesting secondary characters who will no doubt make future appearances and develop further beyond their guest roles here—No Ro Shi, a straight arrow demon hunter who is not aware of Chen’s marital relations and Sergeant Ma, who considers all this supernatural investigation stuff to be outside of his job description.
The plot, as you might expect, begins with a cliffhanger and flashes back to the preceding events so we understand why Chen and a demon would be left hanging upside down together. It’s not revealing anything to say that nefarious undertakings are uncovered and that, despite many close calls, thanks to our intrepid pair and their associates, all’s well that ends well.
What makes all this work even as it adheres to convention is the unconventional setting, which combines the high-technology we’ve come to accept as normal (though it would seem magical 50 years ago) with supernatural forces that seem equally mundane to the characters. Chen sends emails to residents of Hell, for example, via a bio-web employing human volunteers who make high-speed synaptic connections. This very same bio-web has murkier connections to Hellish matters. But neither the realm of technology nor the realm of the mystical truly are fully understood by those who rely upon them. Which, when you think about it, isn’t all that much different from the state of our "real" world.
Equally interesting is a conceit drawn from the ancient myths that the gods once walked freely among humankind. The Greek and Roman deities had offspring with human lovers, the God of the Twelve Tribes of Israel spoke directly to his prophets, Krishna advised the warrior Arjuna. Similarly, Chen finds that his professional responsibilities continually contradict the dictums of his patron Kuan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, who favors Chen with personal discussions and guidance. Divine interventions, notwithstanding, it is ultimately up to Detective Chen, even when he doesn’t realize it, to determine his fate in a seemingly fated reality. Although Snake Agent is a self-contained narrative, that fate is no doubt intertwined with a devil in the details of the next damning installment.
David Soyka is a freelance journalist and teacher who writes the occasional short story. He also writes corporate marketing communications, which is a fiction of a different sort.