‘My name’s Markowski. I carry a badge.
‘Also a crucifix, some wooden stakes, a big vial of holy water, and a 9mm Beretta loaded with silver bullets…’
Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis; Angry Robot; 394 pages; $7.99/$8.99 Canada
Ever since Joe Friday first intoned ‘Just the fact, ma’am,’ the hard-boiled cop has been as much a part of the North American psyche as the hard-boiled PIs of the pulp era – which is probably why Justin Gustainis’ Hard Spell works.
Markowski is a detective sergeant with the Scranton, Pennsylvania Occult and Supernatural Crimes Investigation Squad – the ‘supes squad’ for short. He and his partner, Detective Sergeant Karl Renfer, primarily work homicides with a supernatural angle – which makes the murder of a vampire their case.
Before long, it becomes apparent that there is a supernatural serial killer on the loose and, judging from the Sumerian glyphs cut into each dead vampire, the killings are just the first step in a plan that aims higher than Markowski and Renfer can even begin to imagine.
Gustainis writes with the kind of economy that you might expect in the more standard brand of hard-boiled tale, but he also has a knack for invoking the eerie menace of the supernatural – without going all florid and purple prose on the reader.
He skillfully introduces the history of his world’s supernatural elements and brings together his cast of characters in a way that would make Dashiell Hammett or Robert B. Parker proud. His villain’s plan is audacious and well thought out.
As mere mortals, of course, Markowski and Renfer have to be up on their methods of combating supes and the Supes Squad also gets back up from a unique version of S.W.A.T. [the Sacred Weapons and Tactics squad]. Their boss, Lt. McGuire, backs them as much as any good boss would – if not always happily [as when a couple of witch hunters in black take to close an interest in his guys].
This is a world where you have forensic witches [which is where the witch hunters come in…] and where you generally have wizards, werewolves, vampires and other supernatural entities, but rarely any overlap – rarely being the key word here.
When the murders move to other jurisdictions, we meet a comely counterpart of Markowski, Detective Lacey Brennan, and a state cop who loathes him for an annoying insignificant but wholly human reason. Add a cute young vampire named Christine, a vampire informant named Vollman and a stolen grimoire of the absolute foulest, most devastating spells ever recorded, and we’re just scratching the surface of this remarkably understated, witty and bloody mystery.
Across the top of the cover of Hard Spell runs a banner that proclaims ‘An Occult Crimes Unit Investigation.’ Between that and the eight-page teaser for a second installment called Evil Dark, we can deduce that this is the first in what promises to be one of the most entertaining urban fantasy series around.
Final Grade: A-