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Book Review: Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis

Genre: Paranormal, Noir, Police Procedural, Urban Fantasy
Mass Market Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication Date: July 26, 2011
ISBN-10: 0857661159
ISBN-13: 978-0857661159

I’ve never thought of Scranton, PA as a really happening place, but in the alternate reality of Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis, Scranton becomes the epicenter of everything occult in this paranormal police procedural.

Stan Markowski is a detective in Scranton’s Occult Crimes unit, tasked with ferreting out the culprits of crimes both by and against the paranormal individuals of Scranton. These include werewolf and vampire attacks, misuse of wizardly magic, demon summoning, and paranormal hate crimes. When a wizard turns up brutally murdered and robbed of nothing but a book of demonology, Stan and his youthful partner Karl are soon embroiled in a crime that would put unknown amounts of power into the hands of a madman.

Hard Spell is a paranormal crime novel that brings the paranormal out of the shadows and into the light (so to speak). In this alternate Scranton, the paranormal is part and parcel of life and everyone knows and is familiar with it. There is none of hidden underworld that seems to be a standard part of the paranormal subgenres. Instead what Gustainis writes is a detective story with paranormal elements.

In some ways Hard Spell draws comparison to Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot where the crime solving aspect of the story supersedes the paranormal aspects. The story is about finding a murderer, even if that murderer is only killing vampires, Stan’s least favorite type of person.

Stan is that hard-bitten, cynical, middle-aged detective we would expect. But unlike the private detective genre, Stan is constrained by and supportive of the law, even when he doesn’t prefer it. He is loyal to a fault, and believes himself a failure both personally and professionally. But he is dutiful and hard working. Like the character of Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) in Law and Order he is all about the job even as his personal life intrudes on it.

The book is told entirely in first person perspective from the point of view of Stan. It is his voice we hear, and his take on events we see. As a result, there is lots of “cop speak” (coarse language and acronyms) and a chopped feel to the writing, as if Stan were biting back the words he is writing for us. Though Gustainis uses a first-person perspective, the reader does not lack for lots of twists and turns in the narrative. There are lots of leads which Stand and Karl follow, a couple of romantic angles that will likely be developed in the sequel Evil Dark, and a few red herrings.

I’ll admit to being duped by one of the red herrings, and I was about to dismiss the story as obvious (why is Mr. Vollman so interested in being a part of the investigation?) until Gustainis slips the plot from the obvious to the not-so-obvious. The action then culminates in a final battle scene that is horrifyingly brutal but also very much in character with the story. (Hard Spell can be gruesome at times, though no worse than any CSI episode.)

Hard Spell is a good bit of paranormal fiction that is more crime novel than paranormal one. The two elements are mixed well together, and I would certainly enjoy reading another mystery of the Occult Crimes unit in the future.

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