Necromancy: the practice of talking to the spirits of dead people; the use of magic powers especially for evil purposes.
Dead people, magic powers, evil purposes. With that as the background for his trade, you know this Johannes Cabal is going to be a rather grim type. And he is that, but in a sort of endearing, sarcastic, scientific-minded, socially inept and imperious way. He begins by making a deal with Satan himself: Johannes, having signed his soul over to Satan years before, now needs it back in order to carry on with his experiments. Satan proposes a wager- Cabal needs to get Satan a hundred souls at the end of a year, and all will be well. Helpfully, he even provides Cabal with the bones (he he he!) of a traveling carnival (of the undead, of course) who will be his staff, as it were, to help in the mission.
The opening chapter is worth its weight in gold. Hell, as described here, is quite literally familiar to anyone who's stood in line trying to get the paperwork done in any government office in India. Arthur Trubshaw, the head clerk, is shatteringly familiar also. And Satan is bored and marvelous.
Cabal enlists his own brother to help inject the charisma needed to attract the public to his carnival. But said brother has been imprisoned in a family crypt- he's a sort of vampire, you see- and Cabal is responsible. We don't know the back story, and are never told. The brother, Horst, still agrees to help and the carnival gets underway. But it's Satan at the other end of the deal. We know all is not going to go well.
Suffice to say, the plot meanders a bit along the way, but the writing was engaging enough. Cabal's impatience and dry wit somehow endear him to you, at least they did to me. The plot doesn't follow the imagined route; in fact about 2/3rds of the way the tone of the story changes and there are real questions about moral choices and the simple distinction between good and bad.
I loved the characters: Bones the undead carnival helper, that smug crow who only says "Kronk", Satan himself, Mimble the evil imp who makes a brief appearance, and Horst who is sauve and has a great head on his shoulders. Literally and morally. Johannes Cabal himself is a classic example of a Rational type, if anyone is familiar with the MBTI. Sigh. I have entirely too much free time if I'm able to see that, eh?
Now to the uncomfortable part. I did not understand the ending. At all. Sigh. It's really inconvenient to be daft right at the climax of a jolly good book. Maybe I should write to the author and he'll explain?
And more importantly, what happens to us after we die? The book I'm on right now is about a hospice nurse and her patient. So there...the Big Sleep is rather fascinating and has always been, to me. I understand Cabal's single-minded quest to study the only Unknown in human existence. Heck, I would've probably been a necromancer myself if I'd thought about it earlier. Maybe it's not too late... I shan't be as funny as Cabal, but maybe someone will give me Bones and the carnival train. And Horst. And Satan won't enter the picture at all and I can do my necromancy in peace and quiet.