The Devil’s Playground by Stav Sherez

3 Mins read

It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since The Devil’s Playground first came out. The book received widespread acclaim and was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey Dagger, which goes to a top new writer each year. With this debut novel, crime fiction lovers discovered a fine young talent in British writing – Stav Sherez – with his dark and clever prose. We’ve since enjoyed books like A Dark Redemption and Eleven Days here on the site. Now, Faber & Faber has reprinted The Devil’s Playground in a special 10th Anniversary Edition.

A serial killer is stalking the streets of Amsterdam and the police are no nearer catching the perpetrator than when they first started. Eight young girls have been murdered in horrific fashion. But the horribly scarred ninth corpse discovered in a remote park, that of a tramp Jake Colby, puzzles the detective in charge of the case, Ronald Van Hijn. Why the change in MO? And why does the man have in his possession a book with several mysterious numbers within?

Enter Jon Reed, an Englishman who took Colby in just before his death. Van Hijn brings him to Amsterdam in order to identify the body but before he knows it Reed is embroiled in a plot that gets deeper and broader with every passing day. Meanwhile, an American woman called Suze is researching a Jewish artist who was taken by the Nazis some 60 years prior. How could Colby be connected? Reed and Van Hijn, both with their own problems, work to solve the case. It’s one that spans the decades, right back to the concentration camps of World War II.

Most of the action is set in Amsterdam and Sherez uses the seedy reputation of the city as the perfect backdrop to what is ultimately a down and dirty tale of murder and deceit. The second major strength of The Devil’s Playground are the characters – in the main they are lost souls who find themselves, and each other, as a result of the murders. Van Hijn, Reed, Colby and Suze are all outstanding protagonists and around them the story unfolds.

Once a high flyer, Van Hijn is on a serious downward career slide. Months before he’d shot and killed a rapist who he thought was the serial killer. But he was wrong and since then his boss has been determined to take him off the case. Yet he persists. Reed is a writer suffering a degree of block and is very close to losing his job. He is unwell and unsure of his place in life. Colby, well, he’s incredibly complex and to reveal more about him would undermine the story. Suze struggles to form meaningful relationships with men. Getting out of the blocks is fine, but the long haul? Think again.

It’s easy to see why this novel was up for a CWA Dagger when it first came out. This is a very strong story, written with an assured confidence that belies the ‘first novel’ label. It has been described as thought provoking, and it certainly is.

There is an interesting postscript at the back of the book where Sherez discusses the highs and lows of his writing process, which you can read exclusively on CFL here. The Devil’s Playground went through some 20 redrafts. And perhaps that’s what makes the story a cut above the rest and deserved of such a high praise and an anniversary reprinting. There are multiple story arcs, layered atop each other, involving a relatively large number of characters, spanning many years and concerning the extremely difficult circumstances of the Holocaust. At times some of the content makes tough reading, but then again it was a terrible time and Sherez neither hides from this, nor glorifies in it – a narrative that could so easily have gone wrong, but didn’t. Credible, balanced and overall beautifully written.

On the strength of The Devil’s Playground this reviewer will be heading out to read all of the other author’s work…

Faber & Faber

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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