Anne Fine is a stand-alone author, with each of her novels exploring different issues. Her writing for adults is brilliant but unpredictable, and her children's stories are the same. The only certainty is that her next novel will be nothing like the last. Sure enough, The Devil Walks turns out to be her first Gothic story, featuring an Uncle Jack quite as wicked as Ebenezer Balfour, who so nearly does for his nephew David in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped.
Narrated by Daniel Cunningham, a young man living over a century ago recalling his strange youth, this story starts with his mad mother condemning this same son to an invalid life for which there is no medical justification. His only occupation is to play imaginary games within a doll's house that exactly replicates his mother's former home. One day, buried under a tiny cushioned seat, he discovers a sinister carved manikin with the power to make everyone who touches it behave much worse.
His mother eventually hangs herself and Daniel is transported to his uncle, now living in the family home. Here he comes to realise that the wooden doll possesses a voodoo curse. The uncle's plan is to find it, kill off his nephew – who alone knows where it is – and then have sole control of the doll and its malign powers. A stepson himself, he has already murdered his half-brothers and would have killed Daniel's mother too. Cue a massive climax as the cart carrying the doll's house finally comes rumbling down the road towards Uncle Jack, busy digging Daniel's grave in the garden.
Fine has written about wickedness before, with The Tulip Touch one of the first of many contemporary novels taking on the possibility of inherent evil within children. That was a nuanced novel, but Gothic stories have little time for moral reservations, preferring bold black and whites. Some may find this a limitation, while also not warming to Daniel's somewhat prissy prose. Yet for those happy within a fictional world of secret passages, crucial eavesdroppings, revealing diaries and mysterious locked rooms, this story is perfect.
Whether Uncle Jack is also the devil or the blame goes back to an ancient spell is never made clear. But whatever her self-imposed restrictions, Fine couldn't write an unengaging novel if she tried. Gripping from the start, this is supremely professional writing, with all the pleasures of a happy ending just when it's most needed.