February 20, 2014

Dracula Meets Dragnet: a review of Justin Gustainis' "Hard Spell"

Hard Spell (Occult Crimes Unit Investigation: Book 1)
by Justin Gustainis
Angry Robot Books (2011)
400 pages
ISBN 0857661159

I've read a few police procedurals over the years and it's just not a genre I've found much enjoyment in. When story gets taken up with a lot of the minutia of the protagonist's given trade, whether that be detective, surgeon, lawyer, or intelligence agent, I tend to zone out. I guess the missing ingredient was the supernatural, because Justin Gustainis' Hard Spell turned out to be quite an enjoyable novel.

Set in Scranton, New Jersey, magic and the supernatural became known in the world early on in the 20th century. And Scranton, it turns out, happens to sit on the meetings of ley lines, making it a magnet for vampires, werewolves, witches, and wizards, and just about anything else that used to be categorized as "no such thing." To keep the supernatural in check, the already strained police force has a Supernatural Crimes Investigation Unit, and this novel features the exploits of two detectives, Stan Markowski, the grizzled vet, and his new, hot-shot partner, Karl Renfer.

Things can get pretty wild when chasing down criminals with one supernatural ability or another, but they have a pretty good handle on things, busting up kids trying to summon a demon just to see if they can do it, or some witch slinging charms on the black market, but when a horrific murder takes place and the victim winds up being one of the supernatural, Markowski and Renfer suspect things have turned up a notch in Scranton. The victim was a wizard, and judging by the way he was tortured, whatever the murderer stole from the safe still stuffed with cash, must have been pretty darned important. Before long, Markowski and Renfer are working every angle they can to find the killer and piece together what his/her endgame is before anymore of Scranton's supernatural citizens wind up dead--or deader than they already are.

If this had been a straight-up murder mystery, I probably would have checked out. The minutia of police work--any work for that matter--is a little taxing for me as a reader who wants to see some action. Thankfully, Gustainis crafted quite the little web of lies and red herrings for this mystery, and a really ingenious use of magic and vampirism through the novel. The fact that these detectives approach each astonishing case of the supernatural with a "been there, done that" attitude, helps bring those fantastical elements into the real world and make them seem plausible. It also helps that the magic system isn't just some wave-your-wand nonsense, but shows a lot of elbow grease and heavy consequences for tinkering with the different kinds of spell and wards they either run up against or use themselves.

Markowski and Renfer have a great little dynamic going on, too. There's a fair bit of backstory peppered all through the novel, can feel a little bit tedious at times, especially when raring for the next revelation or action sequence, but it's balanced with some great dialogue between the two detectives as well as with the colorful cast of characters they run across through their investigation.

It seems Angry Robot knows just the kind of urban fantasy I like, publishing this series along with Chuck Wendig's Myriam Black series and Chris F. Holm's Collector trilogy. Hard Spell couples some hard-boiled aspects with some hellacious ones to make for a very good mystery with a paranormal bent. And with two more books in the series, Known Devil being the most recent published this winter, I should be well entertained through spring.

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