Sunday, September 18, 2011

REVIEW: Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis

My name's Markowski. I carry a badge.

As you might expect from the hard-boiled detective novel cover, not to mention his deadpan introduction, Stan Markowski, the hero of  Justin Gustainis' Hard Spell, is a Detective Sergeant of the Stranton PD.

Also a crucifix, some wooden stakes, a big vial of holy water, and a 9 mm Beretta loaded with silver bullets.

What makes this such a fun story, however, is the fact that Stan is a Detective Sergeant for the Supernatural Crimes Investigation Unit. Part Joe Friday and part Agent Mulder (with a little Gil Grissom mixed in), he's the kind of man who commands immediate respect. Meanwhile, his partner, Karl Renfer (a hotshot cop with James Bond aspirations) makes a perfect foil. Their relationship borders on the clichéd, but that's intentional - the entire book 'borders' on it, but cleverly challenges every cliché it comes across.

This was just a fun story. The narrative style worked perfectly, and the dialogue was consistently strong. It's not often I pay so much attention to dialogue, but this was the kind of book I wished I could 'watch' in a serialized TV format, just so I could hear the sarcasm. The supernatural elements are handled beautifully, coming across as entirely plausible, and not at all comic or surreal. In many ways I was expecting a Men In Black kind of approach, but this is much closer to The Night Stalker - assuming, of course, that the show was filmed a few decades later, uncensored and granted the kind of budget that cable TV can command.

Much to my surprise, this was a story that worked well as both an urban fantasy and as a police procedural. Take away the supernatural elements, and there is still a good detective story here, but it's the mix of the two that make this such a great read. It's not often you come across a group of goblins, addicted to meth, who have to be apprehended for robbery . . . and even less often that you need to dial 666 to summon help from the Sacred Weapons And Tactical (SWAT) unit.

A quick read, this is also a good one - definitely one of the most pleasant surprises I've encountered in a long time. I really hope Justin continues with this world, and gives us more adventures with the Scranton PD.

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