Angry Robot, 2011
The first thing that drew me to Justin Gustainis’ Hard Spell is the cover. The layout, title and art style are all explicitly designed to mimic that of Hard Case Crime, itself a recent imprint (founded in 2004) whose covers are known to mimic pulp covers of the 40s and 50s. Always on the lookout for clever use of the fantastic combined with pulpish fun Hard Spell quickly jumped to the top of my read list. While Gustainis has written several other novels in the Urban Fantasy vein this is my first foray with his work.
Hard Spell takes place in the supernatural mecca of Scranton, PA (apparently a major nexus of ley lines) and features Detective Stan Markowksi of the Scranton PD’s Supernatural Crimes department. It’s Markowksi’s job to investigate crimes by and against the “supe” community; it’s not a job he always likes but come hell or high water he will get the job done. The novel is narrated in his delightfully dour voice that expertly mimics the tone of a noirish voice over. There is a sort genuine delight in reading Markowski’s wry, sardonic narration that manages to stave off any difficulties with the exposition heavy introduction. There is a certain humor to Markowski’s run down of US history in the supernatural infused world of Hard Spell. I was particularly taken with the brief section oregarding Dr. Martin Luther King:
There was a rumor going around that J. Edgar Hoover had a tape of King “entertaining” a vampire, but I don’t believe that. No human as good as Dr. King would mess around with a vamps. Probably. But nobody’s ever explained why the bullet that killed him was made of solid silver.
There is (to my sense anyway) something of a wry smile and a wink in that delivery. Or later when Markowski states that he and his partner were looking into “fairy-bashing” there is something of a wink in that sort-of play on words. It isn’t the most elegant of introductions but Markowski’s voice makes it work. (Note: Because I need to mention it, I love that SWAT stands for Sacred Weapons and Tactics, and has volunteer trained clergyman on it.)
The opening, eventually involving Goblin meth heads holding up a liquor store, also does a great job at laying out one important fact: while the perpetrators or victims might be supernatural in origin the crimes are the same.
Markowski is often played as the typical tough guy with a voice and dialogue straight out of a cop drama. However, over the course of the novel Gustainis carefully doles bits of information about him that help round him out some. Despite he seems an individual defined be his job, the reason for which is revealed in the novel, and there is some hope at the novel’s end that we might see Marksowksi evolve into a more dynamic character as the series progresses. However, Hard Spell is very much a procedural; a format not known for rapidly evolving character beyond their start mode.
Hard Spell is an exciting entry into the urban fantasy genre and is one of the first in a long time to really embrace the noir and crime fiction parallel in a meaningful way. Gustainis has developed a fascinating world that closely resembles our own but is just different enough to prove exciting. His clever insertion of supernatural aspects into the everyday lives of humanity is welcome change from the all-too-frequent shadowy underworld aspect. I look forward to seeing more of Markowski and crew in future cases of Occult Crimes Unit Investigation.